Government Digital Service Podcast
Government Digital Service Podcast #12: The International Design in Government community

Government Digital Service Podcast #12: The International Design in Government community

September 30, 2019

Laura Stevens: 

Hello, and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Laura Stevens and I’m a writer here at GDS. Today we’re going to be speaking about the work of the International Design in Government community. This community has grown rapidly since its inception 2 years ago, and now has 1,500 members from 66 countries and 6 continents.

 

The group brings together designers and design minded people working anywhere in the world to share best practice, host events and tackle common obstacles. And this summer, they held their first international event in the USA and Scotland.

 

So let's hear from 2 people directly involved in the community, Kara Kane and Martin Jordan. So please can you introduce yourself and tell me about your role here at GDS.

 

Kara Kane:

Hi, I’m Kara Kane. I’m the Community Lead for User-Centred Design at GDS. So I work on growing user-centered design capability and as well, understanding and awareness of user-centered design across UK government. And I also manage the International Design in Government community.

 

Laura Stevens:

So you’re quite busy.

 

Kara Kane:

Yes. 

 

Laura Stevens

And Martin?

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah. I’m Martin Jordan, Head of Service Design here at GDS. And this means shaping what good service design looks like across government. It means helping government increase its service design capability through recruiting, training and as well, mentoring. And then yeah, building a strong service design community across government and well now as well, internationally. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And could you describe the community to me for somebody who has never heard about it before?

 

Kara Kane:

So the community is just a group of people that are all working on similar things in government. So we have a shared purpose around making better government services. And it’s just, as you said in the intro, it’s extremely diverse and extremely international so it’s grown really quickly and as we’ve started kind of running the community in different ways, so we have online channels, we do monthly calls, we’ve now started doing events. So doing, through doing these different formats, we’ve been able to help people meet each other and helping people meet each other face-to-face.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

Which then helps the online stuff and helps that make it easier because people are more willing to reach out to someone if they’ve met them in person. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And you mention you’ve got countries from all the continents apart from Antartica. 

 

Kara Kane:

Yes.

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah. I think there are no designers there.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah. I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon. 

Ok so, I thought to show how diverse the community is as we mentioned earlier, I’d ask you a few questions about some of the different 66 countries you’ve got involved.

 

Martin Jordan:

Oh gosh.

 

Laura Stevens:

So do you know who your most northerly member is?

 

Kara Kane:

Think it might be Iceland…?

 

Martin Jordan:

Oh yeah, probably.

 

Kara Kane:

We might have people in Reykjavik…?

 

Laura Stevens:

Kara, you are correct.

 

Kara Kane:

Yes!

 

Martin Jordan:

I thought of Helsinki but yes, yeah, that makes more sense, yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

And then we, who is your most southerly member?

 

Martin Jordan:

So it’s, it’s probably New Zealand. Because there are people, there are people in Wellington.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes! Martin, you got that right. 

 

Don’t doubt your guess.

 

And then you have, out of the members, you have both the largest country in the world by area and the second smallest, do you know what those 2 countries are?

 

Martin Jordan:

So one might be Russia. And the second one, I have no idea.

 

Laura Stevens:

OK, you got Russia, so Kara, can you do the second, the second smallest country in the world by area?

 

Kara Kane:

It might be Monaco..?

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes! Well done.

 

So, and then the final one, just to showcase this diverse group, you have a country that’s a member, that is made up of more than 200 islands.

 

Kara Kane:

I was ready for this one. I did some pre-work. So I know that this is Palau. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Well done! So this shows how, even amongst these diverse groups, there’s lots of shared traits with design in government. 

 

Was there a particular catalyst for this International Design in Government group? How did it start?

 

Martin Jordan:

So our former boss Lou Downe, at that time Director for Design, and the UK government, they like to blog. And they wrote a blog post I think in February 2017. And they referenced the D-5 countries.

 

Laura Stevens:

Could you explain the D-5?

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah. So the D-5 countries were kind of like very digital countries that came together I think around 2011 or so. That included the UK, Estonia, Israel, New Zealand and South Korea. And there’s an ongoing conversation and a regular monthly call around design around government. And there was a special edition on design.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Martin Jordan:

That we did do in early 2017. And Lou basically wrote a blog post and said like, well we’re having this great community of designers in the UK government, but there’s probably like more stuff to do as well on a global scale, because we very likely have common issues. 

 

We all kind of like, design services that are somewhat similar. Policies might be different, laws might be different but overall, there are a lot of like, similarities. So we might be able to like, scale co-authored patterns, we might be looking at like, how to embed user-centred culture in government.

 

Kara Kane:

Yes. 

 

Martin Jordan:

All of those things. So they wrote a blog post and then we were like, ‘ok, what does it actually mean?’.

 

Kara Kane:

We had a form at the end of the blog post for people to let us know if they were interested in joining whatever this thing would be. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

So I went away and took that list of people, and kind of started developing the community. So we just invited all of those people to a Google group and then went from there.

 

Laura Stevens:

And it grew really rapidly. Like I’ve got here in the first 10 months, it grew to 250 people from 37 countries. What sort of like challenges did you face when you were growing it at that sort of scale quickly?

 

Kara Kane:

I think with any community, starting it is, is just difficult to start kind of forming relationships and to start getting the conversation going. So as a Community Manager, it was really about trying to get to know people in the community, trying to start introducing people, trying to just, like I would just have calls with people to find out what they’re working on to get to know them a little bit. 

 

And then we started running these monthly calls, which were a way to, to kind of start sharing work in a different way. But again that took a while for the focus to turn away from GDS in to, to be a focus on sharing internationally. So not just us kind of telling, but us learning as well from, from other people. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And do you find there are a lot of shared things? ‘Cause obvio--, the countries we mentioned earlier, they’ve got hugely different geographies, populations, all different. But are you finding there’s, they are these shared obstacles that designers face in government and what, what would some of them be?

 

Martin Jordan:

So in some places, there might not be a designer there at all but like a design minded person who’s doing it in some way.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Martin Jordan:

So they ask like, how do you, how do you make the first business case for the first designer, and then we might be able to like, share like some of, some of the arguments and also there are a lot of, a lot of good stories out there so we try to like, give them good examples that they can kind of like, go to their, their seniors and like, advocate with these stories.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah. 

 

Martin Jordan:

That is quite, quite, quite, quite powerful.

 

Kara Kane:

Then following on from that, if you think about things like immigration, like that runs across…

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

...every, everywhere. So there’s a lot that we can, can learn from the similarities and differences of how, of how we run services related to immigration or employment or benefits. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And is it quite a lot of physical meetups or is it more sort of interaction online? You mentioned earlier there’s Google groups, Slack. So how does that, how do you all communicate with each other in the community?

 

Kara Kane:

When it first started it was all online. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Uh huh.

 

Kara Kane:

And because it’s an international community and, from the beginning it was really widespread in terms of representation geographically, it was hard to kind of think about you know what’s, what’s something we could do to get people to meet face to face. And I think the monthly calls were a way to do that. Because we were using Zoom, so it was the first way to like, show my face…

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah. 

 

Kara Kane:

...to the community. And to, for Martin and Lou, when we were all on these calls, and meeting people. But then from there, I think, when I first joined GDS, Martin always wanted to do a conference.

 

So we were always looking for a reason to run a conference. And then the international community seemed like that was the next natural step, was to get people together face to face.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So yeah. You had your first official conference in London, 2018. Can you talk a bit about that and how you went about getting everybody here from all these different countries, who was able to attend with that?

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah. So we had a tiny budget to actually make this happen. We didn’t spend much, much money on that. And we kind of relied on kind of, everyone paying for their own flight tickets…

 

Kara Kane:

So when we, when we decided to run an international conference, we really wanted to involve the community in what it would look like. So we started sending surveys and emails out to the community to say, ‘what do you want this to be? Do you want to even come? What kind of format do you want it to be? Where should it be? What time of the year?’ So we kind of used the community to figure out what it should look like.

 

And then from there, started to shape the agenda. 

 

Laura Stevens:

What was the atmosphere like on the day?

 

Kara Kane:

It was exciting.

 

Martin Jordan:

I think people were like, super excited to see each other. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah,

 

Martin Jordan:

Because apart from like, interacting via Slack and as well as seeing each other in the monthly calls, people started following each other on Twitter, and there was quite an exchange there. 

 

As well, some people met at other international conferences. So whenever there was kind of a design or service design conference, they were like, like almost like, you how they were like literally like asking like, ‘who else is there?’ I was in Helsinki at some point in winter when it was freezing and I was like, ‘Hey, Finnish government folks, shall we meet for tea?’ and they were like, ‘yeah!’.

 

So like, you were, yeah. I think it was a really really great atmosphere and for, for the conference, for the 2 days, we tried to have representatives from all continents. 

 

So we tried to like, yeah, have a, have a good representation of of of regions. And then we had workshops on the second day. And for those workshops we really basically asked everyone in the UK government who can kind of like, host a workshop, run a workshop. 

 

Laura Stevens:

What came out of that in terms of saying that people were more connected and did any like working groups come out of it? 

 

Martin Jordan:

So the Finns, the folks in (the) Finnish government, started kind of like, a local community that gets together every, every month. And literally today, the Finns, as well the Estonians, run a joint workshop meetup together. So we actually started to, regionally we started connecting, connecting people with each other.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Martin Jordan:

They’re now doing things, which is amazing to see. Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

I think another thing that came out of it is, so at the very end of the conference, we kind of asked people ‘do you want this to happen again?’, ‘do you want there to be another conference?’.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

And people were like, ‘yeah!’. And there’s people, in the community, who are willing to kind of, take on the responsibility to do something. So that was really, really exciting. 

 

But I think, yeah the other thing was just, we’ve had people tell us that they know feel more confident to reach out to people. Like they’ve met people face to face, or at least they saw them at the conference, so now they feel like they can reach out to them. 

 

People are using tools and methods that they learned in some of the workshops. They’re continuing to, to work on the things, if they, if they presented at the, at the  conference, they’re continuing to work on those, on those things that they were presenting about. Whether it was a workshop format or a kind of, yeah, a different way of thinking. So that’s really exciting. 

 

Martin Jordan:

Some countries even like, started translating some of the tools they’re using into English to make it more accessible for other community members, which is amazing to see.

 

Laura Stevens:

What, I was also going to ask about that. Because obviously running an international community, you have the time zones and the language, do you, how do you get round those things?

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

Time zones are really difficult for the monthly calls. In the very beginning, we tried to run, I don’t know why I thought this was a good idea but I was like, we’ll just do the call twice and obviously that did not work. And obviously that’s a ton of work. 

 

So what we started was just to, just to move the times around. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

So it’s not like always run a call at the same time. We’re always trying to, to kind of, engage with different people. So we’ll run calls after work, later in the evening so that the Australians and the Kiwis can join. 

 

Martin Jordan:

But not too early in the morning.

 

Kara Kane:

Yeah, not too early in the morning. Happy to, happy to do things after work but not before (laughter from everyone).

 

Laura Stevens:

And the languages, are all the calls run in English?

 

Kara Kane and Martin Jordan (same time):

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

We haven’t, we haven’t encountered any issues with, with language. But I think you know, going forward we’re trying to be as, as inclusive as we can. We’re trying to reach as many kind of countries working in this space as we can. So that might be something that we have to think about in the future. 

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah we were really impressed to hear recently that at a conference in Taiwan, a government conference, they had subtitles in 12 different languages to reflect like, all the people attending. And we still have no idea how, how to make that work but this kind of like, the level of ambition. 

 

So at the most recent conference in Edinburgh, there was live subtitling in English and we’re looking into like, technologies to make it as inclusive as possible.

 

Laura Stevens:

And that leads me nicely on. Because you mentioned earlier that this, the last event in 2018, led directly to the 2019 events. And this is the first time that the events have gone global. So could you talk through those, what’s happened so far this year?

 

Kara Kane:

The first thing that we did this year was collaborate with Code for America. Code for America is a non-profit in the United States and they work on reforming government nationally. So they work really closely with state and local level government. They do really amazing work, and they run a summit, they run a yearly summit called ‘Code for America Summit’. And our idea was to bring the international community to the summit. So what we did was run a one-day international design in government day…

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

...before the Code for America Summit. So that was in Oakland in May of this year. And yeah, it was a real collaboration between between our 2 organisations. And to really bring the community to the US and reach people there that we’re not reaching, you’d think that the US would have a really strong design in government community, but they don’t yet. It’s still kind of nascent and forming. So it was really exciting to kind of, try and get all of those people in the room. Which they found really really valuable just to meet people like them, working on the same types of problems and challenges.

 

Laura Stevens:

Is that because of like, the vast geography of America or is, and the federal...or is that?

 

Martin Jordan:

The latter as well. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah, totally. Totally.

 

And of course again like, there’s a lot of stuff that they can share. And then they can share kind of like, their recipes to how to solve a certain thing with other people.

 

Laura Stevens:

Well, and that sharing tool--like I noticed New Zealand picked up the GOV.UK Design System and...

 

Martin Jordan:

Yes.

 

This was amazing to see. Yeah, they kind of like took that and kind of made it theirs. Like restyling it, taking a few things in and out.

 

Laura Stevens:

And was that facilitated by the community?

 

Martin Jordan:

Well to some degree. So we have those monthly calls with themes, and the most popular ones were around design systems. So we actually had to, to repeat this theme so we had it in 2018 and did it in 2019 again because there’s so much interest.

 

And I think this was by far the most popular call we had, with more than 100 people joining.

 

Laura Stevens:

Oh wow. Ok so...

 

Martin Jordan:

And partially it was like a group of people in one room like, counting as 1 right.

 

Laura Stevens:

Oh ok. 

 

Kara Kane:

Yeah. It was our biggest call ever. I was just completely shocked to see over a 100 people online joining us on Zoom.

 

Laura Stevens:

Is it quite tricky to manage that as sort of, or does, is everyone quite respectful when somebody’s talking, everyone else will be muted. Is that, how is that to manage?

 

Kara Kane:

Yeah. We have to set some, some ground, ground rules at the beginning to say, ‘everyone please go on mute’. And like yeah, there’s kind of there’s rules around, around how to ask questions. So there’s a chat function which is really easy to use, so you can write your question in the chat.

 

And then if you feel comfortable enough to go off mute and ask your question during the time for questions, then you can do that. Or I just read through the questions and try and help facilitate, facilitate that. 

 

Martin Jordan:

And there’s always recordings as well. So people can go back. So when they join the community later, they’re able to like, watch these previous calls or recordings of those, and once in a while, when people like, raise a question on Slack or on the mailing list, we’re like look, this was already covered, like have a look and they’re so thankful to like, find these resources.

 

Laura Stevens:

And if we can go back to the America, the conference in America. Was the community involved with organising that like it was with the one in London, or was that is that a slightly different way it was organised?

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah. 

 

Kara Kane:

We reached out to some of the North American community members.

 

Laura Stevens:

And who would they be?

 

Kara Kane:

So we had people at Nava [Nava Public Benefit Corporation] in the United States, we had people at the Canadian Digital Service, people at the United States Digital Service, the USDS.

 

Martin Jordan:

Veteran Services.

 

Kara Kane:

So we kind of came up with 3 different kind of themes, which were around getting leadership buy-in for user-centered design, designing services for and with everyone and building design capacity and capability.

 

Martin Jordan:

This was kind of like, although it was called International Design in government day, it was more kind of like, North American design in government.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah. Yeah, yeah. With that regionalised context?

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

And how did it feel on the day? Did it feel similar to the one you felt, you did in London, or was it different?

 

Martin Jordan:

I mean I was so impressed.

 

Kara Kane:

It was a lot of people that we hadn’t met before from the community, or people that were new to the community. It was people that maybe hadn’t all been in the same room before.

 

Laura Stevens and Martin Jordan (same time):

Yeah. 

 

Kara Kane:

As in designers working in government kind of talking about things and realising, ‘oh my gosh, I’m not the only person...’ 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

...that has these really frustrating things’. Or that has you know, learning about a success of someone like you just feel, you could feel how proud people were. And that was amazing.

 

Laura Stevens:

And do you think that sort of, like talking, you were talking there about that sort of emotional support that the community provides, and that sense of ‘oh no, you’re not alone’. And obviously there’s very practical outcomes like you can use the same user research or you can use parts of the design system, but do you think that emotional support is quite a big part of why people get involved in the community?

 

Martin Jordan:

Absolutely. This is..

 

Kara Kane:

Yeah. Definitely. 

 

Martin Jordan:

This is, such a, such a strong, strong point. And yeah, I think, I think we see this as well in the Slack conversations. Like people asking questions and getting then a response from from somewhere, from another part of the world, is, is really reassuring. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And we should talk about your second conference as well in Scotland this year. So what happened there?

 

Kara Kane:

So when I mentioned at the conference in London, when we had the hands up, well one of the hands was Anna Henderson, who is a Service Designer in Scottish government, in the Office of the Chief Designer. So Anna and her team got in touch with us and said, ‘hey, like we’re really serious, like we really want to do this, like we’re going to get budget, like everyone is, everyone is excited’. They had you know, from their team level up to their minister, ministerial level, was really excited about running an international conference.

 

So Martin and I were like, amazing, let’s do this! 

 

Laura Stevens:

Great!

 

Kara Kane:

Yeah. Why wouldn’t we do this? 

 

So this was the first time that we were kind of running an event, or this is the first time that we were kind of handing over the responsibility of running a conference to someone else.

 

Laura Stevens:

So you didn’t do the agenda or…?

 

Kara Kane:

So we really kind of stepped back. And our role was to kind of, advise and share what we had learned from running the conference in London.

 

Kara Kane:

Yeah. So it was really shaped around the values of Scottish government, which is a lot about inclusion and participation. So the theme of the conference was participation involving citizens in the design of government and public services. And they had really amazing talks from the community, they had things on inclusive recruitment, they had things on doing international research, they had things on working with policy colleagues, and there was a fantastic keynote by Dr. Sally Witcher, who’s the Chief Executive of Inclusion Scotland. 

 

And I think the whole atmosphere of the conference as well was really also encompassing their values. So as Martin said, they had captioning for all of the keynotes and all of the breakouts. So every single room that you went into, there was live captioning available to you. And for all of the keynotes on the main stage, we also had British Sign Language interpreters.

 

Laura Stevens:

And is this something you’d want to carry forward now having seen it done in action?

 

Kara Kane:

Yeah, I think as Martin said, with trying to figure out like, how can we use technology, and these kind of new technologies that are available, around live transcription and live translation. Like how can we use those better because that’s just, that would be just so amazing to be able to help people feel more involved if they can understand the content better.

 

Laura Stevens:

And we can also look forward as well to the, your final is, your final international event of the year. 

 

Kara Kane:

And biggest. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And biggest in Rotterdam. And so yeah, can, Martin, can you tell me a bit about that?

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah, yeah. So yeah, as I said it will be the biggest conference we’ve had so far. So the Dutch government is leading on that. So the, my Dutch is really bad but the Gebruiker Centraal community, so which means like users first. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes.

 

Martin Jordan:

Which is a community in the Dutch government that is around I think, for a few years now. So they had local events and as well conferences there for a while. And now they’re kind of like, opening up and embracing and welcoming all the international visitors. So they’re aiming although, we’re aiming for like 800 people...

 

Laura Stevens:

Wow.

 

Martin Jordan:

...that will come together for like a full three days in Rotterdam in like mid-November this year, so 18th until 20th. And there will be workshops again, because we try to like not only in all of the conferences, not only have people talking at you, but you can actually participate and interact with people. So there’s always a lot of time for like, networking and workshopping things.

 

At the same time as well, kind of like open, other open formats, panel discussions. So all of that is going to happen. And again, there’s been like call for participations, we have been creating a kind of like, advisory board, again an international advisory board. Where people from different continents kind of like help shape as well, the content. 

 

We’re still on an ongoing basis like asking for more content, because there will be so many people so we need a lot of content as well. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So you’re doing a call out now live to…

 

Martin Jordan:

Yes! 

 

Laura Stevens:

So how if you, how do you put something forward, how do I go to this conference?

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. So you can go to ‘international.gov-design.com’. There you find all of the events that have happened already, and the one that’s happening next. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And are you hoping this will, you mentioned for like the American one was a bit more localised to North America. Are you hoping this will have a more global outlook because it’s just a bigger conference?

 

Martin Jordan:

The other day, I was listening to a talk from the Italians and I feel like everybody is kind of innovating in another pocket. So at the beginning some people were like, ‘oh GDS is so far ahead’, but like, we are ahead in some regards. In other regards like, other governments are totally leading. So there’s a lot of stuff we can learn from each other.

 

Laura Stevens:

Is there an example you can think of, maybe from that conference that you were like, ‘oh, they’re doing so much better, we can learn from them’. 

 

Martin Jordan:

So the design system that was created by the US folks and as well the design system created by, by the Australians, contains like various components that we might not have had.

 

So there has been, after one of the calls, like kind of like, an immediate exchange of code...

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Martin Jordan:

...which was like, wow. We were like, ‘oh this is a component we do not have here’. So that people…

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Martin Jordan:

...just share code literally, just…

 

Laura Stevens:

Straight away.

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah. Which is quite amazing, amazing to see. Yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

And in terms of obviously, you’ve had a really significant growth over these past few years, in terms of where you want to the community to go, is there any plans you’ve got for 2020, in terms of maybe, targeting different countries or growing it further or in a different direction. What would be your take on that?

 

Kara Kane:

In terms of the events, we’re intrigued to see how we can continue running those, and how we can continue having the community take ownership of those events. So we have been in, we’ve had people contact us from 3 different countries saying that they’re interested in running a conference. So we are in talks.

 

Laura Stevens:

Watch this space. 

 

Kara Kane:

Watch this space.

 

So we’re trying to think about you know, how many events should we do a year, and what should those events look like, and how big should they be. So we’re working on a bit of a conference playbook…

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

...at the moment, that we can share with people who want to run a conference, to really help them be able to do it. 

 

So in general for the community, going forward, we want it be, we want it to continue to be a place that is supportive for people working in this environment and in this space. We want to continue bringing people together, we want to continue seeing things like the Finns and the Estonians kind of working together and running events together. 

 

And you know, people working on similar service areas coming together to share and learn from each other. But we really you know, in the future, want to get to a point where we’re, as Martin said around the design system example, like how can we share interaction and service design patterns.

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

There’s so much kind of possibility for that. So how can the community facilitate that and what does that look like and is it possible, and at what level can we get to, and how can we keep you know, stealing from each other.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

Stealing code, stealing ideas and just you know, really learning from what everyone else is doing. So it’s really about kind of, maximising share and re-use, which is the theme of the November conference.

 

Martin Jordan:

Exactly, yes.

 

Laura Stevens:

And so if, how would I join this community if I’ve been listening to this, wherever I am in the world, how would I join?

 

Martin Jordan:

So we have quite a few blog posts on the design in government blog, that is one of the GDS blogs. 

 

There you have a dedicated international category, and whatever international blog post you read, at the bottom there are all the links to join the Google group. And then you’re part of the community.

 

Kara Kane:

So once you apply to join the Google group, and join the community, then you’re sent a welcome email. Which kind of tells you about the Slack channels, it tells you about the recordings of the monthly calls, it tells you about the events that are coming up. So you can immediately find out what’s going on and how to get involved. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And tell me about applying. Who exactly can join the group?

 

Kara Kane:

So it’s open to people that are working embedded in government, working in user-centered design. So you could be a designer, a user researcher, some working in accessibility, anyone who’s interested in design, and you have to be interested in talking about those things, from any government in the world, is welcome to join.

 

Laura Stevens:

And I don’t know if we could round off with maybe some tips that you, on how to set up your own community, if this is something, if there’s some quick fire tips that you’ve found over learning this community. Sort of, how do you scale, how do you keep momentum going and what tools do you need.

 

Is there anything you’d want to add those?

 

Kara Kane:

I think the first thing is using platforms that people are already on. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

So…

 

Laura Stevens:

Don’t reinvent the wheel. 

 

Kara Kane:

Don’t reinvent the wheel. Please.

 

Just people use Slack, so use Slack. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

People use email, so use Google groups. It makes it so much easier if you make it hard for people to actually get to the platform where the conversation is happening, you’re already putting up a barrier to your community.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

So make it really easy, easy to access once you’re part of the community. And easy to, easy to respond and join conversations.

 

Martin Jordan:

And if there are events happening, whether they’re kind of like online calls or like physical meetups with talks, like if you can, try to record stuff. So if there is like material you can share, because people will either kind of like, join communities later. Yeah, do that. 

 

Or as well be not able to attend, and if you can then share the materials so they can still consume it in their own time, it’s really beneficial.

 

Kara Kane:

Yeah and I think, building on that, is just having different formats. So not just having a Google group or a Slack group, where it can be really really scary to ask a question or share something. 

 

Having things like monthly calls where you’re kind of, inviting people in to present, inviting people to consume information in a different way, having face to face events where people can network and meet people in a different way. Just having different options for people to feel engaged in the community. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So different formats, use the tools people are already on and record what you do.

 

Kara Kane:

Yes.

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

Three excellent tips.

 

Kara Kane:

And help introduce people. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And is that sort of, facilitating..?

 

Kara Kane:

As a Community Manager. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

It’s really, especially in the beginning, is just help facilitate relationship building. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Arrange lots of cups of coffee.

 

Kara Kane:

Yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

So thank you to both Kara and Martin today for telling us about their experience in running the international design in government community. So thank you for coming on.

 

Kara Kane:

Thank you!

 

Martin Jordan:

Thank you.

 

Thank you to both Kara and Martin today for telling us about their experience in running the international design in government community. 

 

You can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. And you can read the transcripts on Podbean. 

 

Thank you both again very much.

Government Digital Service Podcast #11: On clear writing

Government Digital Service Podcast #11: On clear writing

August 27, 2019

A year on from launching the GDS podcast, senior creative writers Angus Montgomery and Sarah Stewart talk about their jobs.

 

The pair discuss their career paths and the role of writers in government and how clear writing can help people to do their jobs better.

 

 

Angus Montgomery: Hello, and welcome to the latest episode of the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Angus Montgomery and I’m a Senior Writer at GDS. And for this episode of the podcast, I’m joined by my colleague Sarah Stewart. 

 

Sarah Stewart: Hello. I’m also a Senior Writer at GDS. 

 

Angus Montgomery: So our voices might sound quite familiar because both Sarah and I, with our colleague Laura, have been on all the episodes of the GDS podcasts that we’ve done so far and as part of those episodes, we’ve been interviewing people across GDS and across government about their work and talking about the things that they do to help transform government and to build digital services and to make things better for users. 

 

And, we realised that we’re nearly a year into this podcast now, I think this is our 11th episode, and we haven’t actually properly introduced ourselves and talk about what we do, and how our work contributes to digital transformation across government and helps everyone in GDS and across government do their jobs better. So that’s what we intend to do with this podcast.

 

Sarah Stewart: And we’re also going to be sharing our top tips for clear writing, which we’ve put together over the past 3 years of working at GDS, so we’ll be sharing those with you as well.

 

Angus Montgomery: Yeah, so Sarah and I, just as a bit of background, we’re both Creative Writers at the Government Digital Service. We both joined on the same day. Can you remember what day that was? Testing you. 

 

Sarah Stewart: It was May 23rd. 

 

Angus Montgomery: I thought it was the 22nd. 

 

Sarah Stewart: Strong start. 

 

Angus Montgomery: Sarah’s memory is better than mine. May 23rd 2016. And we work as part of a team called the Creative Team in GDS. 

 

And we’re in a team that also has people like filmmakers, production experts, graphic designers, Graham Higgins, who’s also in the room with us, who is doing the production of this podcast and is one of our filmmakers, and audio production and all sorts of other amazing things as well.

 

And our role, the role of our team, is to help everyone in GDS, from Director General down throughout the organisation of all parts talk about their work, communicate their work and explain what it’s doing to help government work better and to make things better for users.

 

Sarah Stewart: Don’t sell us short, Angus. We also write at a ministerial level as well. So it’s from Minister down.

 

Angus Montgomery: So, yeah what we want to do with this podcast as Sarah has already talked about, is explain a bit about our jobs and what we’re here to do, talk a bit about writing and communication and why it’s important and to give our ten top tips, pieces of guidance, principles, whatever it is that you want to call them about how to write and communicate more clearly. 

 

So that’s what we’re going to do. But before we kick that off...Sarah, can you tell me a little bit about what your background is and how you came to work at GDS?

 

Sarah Stewart: Well I don’t know how far we should go back - but at school, the only 2 things that I thought I was good at and enjoyed were English and rounders. And there’s not much you can do with rounders, so I pursued English. I read English at university, came down to London, did my postgrad down here. Became a journalist. Hated every second of it. I was a business journalist and it was a generally terrible experience for me. Although I did pick up some useful things, like always carry a notebook and pen with you, which I still do to this day. 

 

Angus Montgomery: How’s your shorthand?

 

Sarah Stewart: It is non-existent. And also about libel as well, that was an important lesson.

 

Angus Montgomery: Oh yeah, that’s very important.

 

Sarah Stewart: And then I was lucky enough to get a job working at Shelter, which is a housing and homelessness charity and they also campaign for better housing rights and conditions. And I was a Content Writer and Producer there, so I launched their advice Youtube channel, I edited their advice on their website, I launched their advice sound clips, and I edited their blog as well, of case studies.

 

And then after a couple of years, I found out about the job at GDS.

 

Angus Montgomery: What attracted you to GDS?

 

Sarah Stewart: Funny story actually, I had never heard of GDS before applying. I was at Shelter and someone that I worked with left the job advert on my desk with a post-it that said ‘this is the kind of job you can go for in a few years time’ and I thought ‘Screw that, I'll apply for it now.’ 

 

It wasn’t really my ambition to work in government, but it kind of worked out well. I really enjoy what we do now. But you did know about GDS before you joined.

 

Angus Montgomery: I did. So my background was similar in the sense that I was a journalist, I hadn’t worked doing anything else actually, I’d been a journalist my entire career

 

Sarah Stewart: And you liked it?

 

Angus Montgomery: Uh, yeah. I mean like...Liked is not a strong word.

 

Sarah Stewart:...liked it more than I did? Did you cry in the loos everyday like I did?

 

Angus Montgomery: No, that’s really unpleasant and horrible. I’m sorry that you went through that. But there might have been some loo crying at certain stages. I think the thing about journalism, as you sort of implied, is that when it’s good, it’s really fun and it is a great industry to work in. 

 

And you can do lots of different things, and lots of exciting things and meet lots of interesting people. It is really really tough. And when it’s bad, it is very very unpleasant and a difficult environment to work in. 

 

So I was working for a website called Design Week, which covers the UK design industry. Around the time I became editor was around the time that GDS was setting up and launching and getting a really big profile. And was winning awards like a D&AD black pencil and the design of the year awards, so obviously it was a really really big design story. And I got to know some of the design team in GDS, and I was you know obviously, while that was happening, an observer of what was happening, I was reading all the blog posts, I was looking at all the posters and all the other communication that it was putting out 

 

Sarah Stewart: Oh my god, you’re really putting me to shame.

 

Angus Montgomery: But GDS was a really big story, it looked really interesting to me, was hugely appealing in the sense that of, something similar to what you said, this was an organisation that was serving the whole nation. 

 

And an organisation that was very clearly there to do something good. It was there to help government work better for users and for everyone, for civil servants and everyone. Being involved in something like that was really really appealing, and remains really really appealing, it’s why I still come to work everyday.

 

Before we get onto the kind of, the writing aspect and the top tips, the kind of the educational part of this podcast, what is it that you enjoy most about working at GDS and what do you find most satisfying?

 

Sarah Stewart: That’s a good question. I’m lucky to say that they are quite a few things that I enjoy. I like the fact that when I write, and that can be if I’m drafting a speech or writing a presentation or helping someone edit a policy document or write a ministerial forward, that I’m actually doing something that’s important to the idea of democracy, because in order for people to make good decisions, they need to know what the facts are. And I like that I can ask the difficult questions that get to the facts, I like that I can challenge people and say ‘no, you need to include more detail’, I can say ‘you should leave this out because it’s maybe not the right time to come out and say this particular thing.’

 

I love the feeling when someone, maybe this is a bit self-indulgent, but when someone is delivering a speech that I’ve written, it’s like the best feeling in the world, because I’m naturally introverted and I know that these words aren’t my words, but when a joke goes down really well and the audience laughs or when you, you know, when the key message has been hit and people understand it and an action is taken, that’s massively rewarding. 

 

But there’s... I get so much pleasure from just the act of writing. I mean when I’m not doing it at GDS, I’m doing it in my spare time. There’s just something really satisfying, I guess like mathematicians, when they do a sum correctly or they workout a formula and it and it all works out wonderfully well, it’s writing a sentence that flows beautifully and is truthful and you know, moves people to do something or to consider something in a different way. 

 

So I don’t think there’s really one part that I don’t enjoy. I mean I hate meetings, but doesn’t everyone? What, how about you?

 

Angus Montgomery: I think something similar. Although I’m kind of less wedded in a weird way to the craft of writing. I mean writing, it’s not something that I don’t enjoy but I kind of, I don’t get a huge amount of pleasure in a sense from, like constructing a sentence or the kind of technical aspects of it. But the thing I enjoy most is, I really like the idea that writing is structured thinking. 

 

So when you write something down, you need to be really clear and it needs to be really structured and it needs to make sense. And so the thing I get most satisfaction from is, when you’re working with someone to help them explain a difficult concept that can exist maybe only in their own head, and they’re explaining it in a way that they can’t fully articulate, you’re just about understanding it.  And there’s that breakthrough moment when you write something down and you show it to them and they go ‘yes, that’s exactly what I’m trying to say!’  

 

Sarah Stewart: Yeah.

 

Angus Montgomery: ‘That makes total sense, that’s exactly what I’m trying to do’. That to me is the really satisfying part of this, is like getting. And I suppose corollary to that is the fact that we work with really intelligent, really nice people as well, but really super intelligent people that are really driven and really focussed on what they’re doing, and have these really complex things going on in their heads.

 

And maybe because they are so close to that work, the aren’t always capable or don’t always find it easy to communicate as clearly as possible. And that’s really our role is to go in there and say, ‘right, let me inside your head, let me inside all those really deep technical details and All the different things that you’re thinking about. And I will help you communicate this clearly’. 

 

Sarah Stewart: Yeah.

 

Angus Montgomery: And like that to me is the really satisfying part, it’s like being the bridge between this really intelligent person who has a really complicated idea, and the person who needs to understand that.

 

At the risk of asking I suppose a cliched question, tell me about your day-to-day, and what it is that you actually do, and what it is that we do and what we write and produce?

 

Sarah Stewart: Yeah, so we write a whole host of things. So there’s obviously the kind of straightforward written content, so blog posts, press articles, op-eds. I tend to...

 

Angus Montgomery: What’s an op-ed?

 

Sarah Stewart: Oh sorry. Good question. It’s, well actually I was, I…

 

Angus Montgomery: I don’t know the answer to this actually, which is why I…

 

Sarah Stewart: It’s either…So there are some people who think it’s an opinion editorial. So someone just speaking about a subject that they know. Other people think that it means ‘opposite the editorial page’ But basically what we take it to mean, and what I’m doing I think, is writing an opinion piece so…

 

Angus Montgomery: For a newspaper or magazine.

 

Sarah Stewart: Yeah for a newspaper or a magazine. And so I’ll be writing on behalf of somebody, I don’t think it’s any secret to say that you know in government, there are speech writers and there are other...people like us exist in order to kind of help Senior Civil Servants communicate. 

 

So, I tend to specialise in speeches but we also write presentations for people across GDS, we might be writing forewords for strategy papers, we might be editing, you know, policy documents, but that’s a very small part of what we do I think. And we also write scripts for animations and films and do things like podcasts.

 

Angus Montgomery: So we wanted to give you ten principles that help us communicate clearly, and that we think you might benefit from as well. And some of them are you know, things that might seem obvious and some of them may be are a bit more left field. But they are all things that we kind of, help us to our day-to-day jobs. 

 

So without further ado, Sarah do you want to give us point one and tell us a little bit about it?

 

Sarah Stewart: OK so my first principle is: Establish ‘The Point’. Before you write anything, whether it’s a speech, a blog post, a presentation, a love letter – establish what the point of your writing is. And ‘The Point’ comprises two parts – and I’m thinking of trademarking this actually, it’s: What you want you want to say and why it needs to be said. We’ll come onto audience in just a second. 

 

So once you’ve established what the point is, write it on a post-it note, stick it at the top of your doc. It will be your guiding star. It will keep you relevant, it will keep you focused and if you can’t figure out what the point is, don’t write. Don’t agree to do the speech. Don’t agree to do the presentation. The chances are you’ll come up with the point at a future date, but if you’re really struggling to establish what it is that you want to say and the reason for saying it, just don’t do it. You’ll waste people’s time and wasting people’s time is a sin. 

 

Angus Montgomery: Point three of the point, I think. You’ve got what you want to say and why you want to say it but also who you want to say it to.The audience, as you mentioned,  is an important thing. You have to assume that the thing you’re saying is interesting to someone or to a group of people, and then you have to work out who that group of people is. Knowing that will help you work out the best way of communicating your message. It might be that the thing you want to say or write is best done as a blog post, or it might best done as a film, or best done presentation or it might be better to draw it as a picture and create a poster of it. Knowing the what, the why and who you’re trying to tell it to, will help you shape your message and the way you’re communicating your message. 

 

My first point so number 2 of our principles is, ‘write it like you’d say it’. So I mentioned earlier about a big part of our role, or the main part of our role is to help organisations, this organisation, communicate in a human voice.

 

To me a human voice is the voice that you would use to describe something to a friend when you’re you know, having lunch or at the pub or at the park or whatever. Like if this is that thing about like, if you’re trying to describe a really difficult technical concept, then think about how you would explain it to a friend or to your mum or to you know, son or daughter or whatever it might be.

 

And then write down the way that you would do that. So it shouldn’t be really that much difference between the written word and the spoken word. Although obviously you’ll have far fewer sort of ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ and all those sorts of things.

 

But like a human voice written on page should sound like speech to me. So when you read something, it should sound like someone is saying it to you, someone is speaking to you in the way that, in a sort of slightly informal, kind of suppose, kind of friendly tone of voice but in a way that’s understandable and relatable.

 

And that really helps you to, I think, get away from what can be a quite, there can be a formality about the written word, and I think that this is again, why some people find writing quite a sort of scary prospect, is it can feel like you have to use the longest most complex, most impressive words possible. 

 

And actually you really don’t. You need to use the shortest, clearest, simplest words possible just as you would if you were trying to explain something verbally really clearly. So write it like you’d say it, and the way, a thing that can help you to do that is, as you’re writing something down, read it out.

 

Does it make sense if you say it out loud? Does it make sense if you say it in your head? Does that article that you’ve written sound like something you would naturally say? If it does, then you’re broadly along the right lines I think.

 

Sarah Stewart: That’s a good tip. And it neatly links it my next point, which is ‘don’t try and sound clever’.

 

Essentially what you want to be is clear and concise and don’t over do it. Don’t try and impress anyone because you are probably doing something that is impressive. You probably have all the vocabulary you need to express it clearly. Leave it there. 

 

This reminds me of a good quote by the investor Charlie Munger. He said ‘if you want to be thought of as a good guy, be a good guy.’ So if you want to come across as smart, then be smart and explain what you’re doing. But don’t go out there having an agenda that you have to come across as something. It’s inauthentic. 

 

You see it, particularly in academic writing. People who are so in that world become - it’s almost impossible to cut through what they’re saying. For example, my friend sent me the abstract of his book and his opening sentence was 58 words long with no punctuation. I could individually pick out what every single word meant, I knew the meaning of each word but in the syntax, in that sentence, I had no idea what was going on. And I was trying to give positive feedback and I said look I’m really sorry, I don’t know what it is you’re trying to say and he said: ‘Oh, well, it’s written for academics’ - well, presumably at some point you want other people to read it! 

 

Angus Montgomery: Sometimes in this organisation as well, people say ‘oh it’s written for Senior Civil Servants’ or it’s written for a particular audience or it’s written someone whose a specialist, but they are people too. When you’re a senior civil servant, you don’t suddenly become this person who communicates in a really arcane fashion or understands things in a really complex fashion. You’re also a person who needs to understand things really, really quickly, so being able to write things down and explain things in a clear and accessible fashion is appropriate for any reader, regardless of who they are. 

 

Sarah Stewart: Yeah, actually there’s a really good discussion if you want some further reading or further listening. It’s Stephen Pinker in conversation with Ian McEwan on academic writing and the importance of clear writing. So after you’ve listened to this podcast, do give it a watch it’s on YouTube. 

 

Angus Montgomery: Which leads nicely, these are segueing quite nicely together I think, to my point or my next point. Which is something that we say quite a lot at GDS, which is ‘show the thing’. And by that we mean if you’re talking about something or you’re trying to tell someone about a product or a service or a thing, just show it.

 

Explain how it works, say what it is, don’t use metaphors, don’t try to dress it up, don’t try to make it sound like it’s doing things that it isn’t. Just explain what it does.

 

Because as you’ve just said, if the thing that you’ve built or the thing that you’re trying to describe is valuable and worth talking about, then all you need to do is explain it clearly and it will do the work for you. 

 

You don’t need to dress it up, you don’t need to put marketing on it, you don’t need to you know make it sound like it’s the incredible next you know, use loads of adjectives like ‘stunning’ and ‘life changing’. You just need to show it and if it’s a worthwhile thing then the reader will understand that and accept that and will be on board with it.

 

So show the thing, talk about it as clearly as possible, say what it does, and that’s all you need to do. That’s basically it.

 

Sarah Stewart: I’ve come up with an original next principle, Angus. Burn! Which is about feedback and welcoming feedback and a sub point of this, is the message: you are not your writing. 

 

So the other day, some kids came in for work experience. Can I call them kids? Some students came in for work experience and I spoke to them about my job and writing more generally. And a question they asked was ‘what do you do when someone gives you really bad feedback about your writing?’ I think the most important and first thing that you should learn and it’s the most difficult thing that writers have to come to terms with is: you are not your writing. 

 

Yes, it has come out of your head and through your hands and is informed by the experiences you’ve had, but once it leaves you, it is a separate entity. And once you have that disconnect, that it is a separate entity, you stop being precious about it and you start thinking about the work and the work is the most important thing. 

 

So, when someone says to you ‘this is a really confusing piece of writing’ or ‘this is a really confusing essay ‘ or ‘this is a muddled blog post’, they are not saying ‘you are a terrible person.’ They are not saying ‘you’re an imbecile’ or ‘you are a failure as a writer’. They are saying ‘this is muddled’ ‘this is confusing’. It doesn't feel good to be criticised or to have negative feedback, but it’s a gift. It’s an opportunity for you to...

 

Angus Montgomery: Feedback is a gift

 

Sarah Stewart: It really is. I was thinking about the best advice I was ever given as a writer which was being told, when I was a journalist, which is probably why I hated it so much, that I was a rubbish writer. So I think I needed to hear that things weren’t very good or I would have been writing, you know, like a crazy woman for the rest of my life. You need feedback, you need to welcome that in. Because it’s always about the work, it’s never really about you, and it’s never even about you when you’re writing memoir or yoru autobiography, it’s still a separate thing.

 

Angus Montgomery: That leads, leads very neatly into my next point.

 

Which is another GDSism, something that we say quite a lot at GDS which is, ‘the team is the editor’.

 

And before I got into this, because it’s a common thing we say at GDS, I should probably give a shoutout to some of the original Creative Team and Creative Writers at GDS, who you know we’re standing on the shoulders of giants and all that stuff, a lot of certainly my ways of working and thinking have come from these people.

 

So people like Giles Turnbull, Ella Fitzsimmons, Matt Sheret, Amy McNichol and this is the thing I used to hear a lot from them, ‘the team is the editor’ and that means, to pick up on exactly your point, we’re not doing this writing on our own, like we are the writer kind of in charge ultimately of the document or the piece of writing that will go out but we’re working in collaboration with a lot of other people.

 

So we could be working in collaboration with the person who has developed the idea or product or service or whatever it is that we’re trying to communicate. We’ll be working with a comms specialist who will be thinking about what’s the best way to best place to publish this. 

 

You might be working with someone who edits the blog. And we’re working with the rest of our team as well because we’re not working in isolation. Pretty much everything that I write, I share with you and I think vice versa. 

 

And you have to, you’re nothing without an editor. A writer is nothing without a good editor. No book that you have read and no newspaper article that you’ve read and no film that you’ve seen and no commercial you’ve seen on TV is just a result of a single writer...

 

Sarah Stewart: That’s so…

 

Angus Montgomery: ...with their vision.

 

Sarah Stewart: Yeah, that’s so true. And I think that’s why people get so put off writing as well because they seem, people think of writers as, like, strange creatures inspired that they you know, get hit on the head by muse and are able to write perfect prose.

 

But it goes through loads and loads and loads of editing to get that kind of pure, perfect sentence. 

 

Angus Montgomery: So ‘the team is the editor’ and the editor is the unsung hero of writing as well. They are the person in the background that is making all these things work. The reason people give feedback isn’t because they want to undermine you or attack you, it’s because they want to make the work better. And you have to welcome that and find that as well. As a writer it’s really important not to isolate yourself and do it on your own, and plough away and...

 

Sarah Stewart: It is nerve-wracking to share your work and you do have to be aware of when, for example, say I’m writing a speech, it’s not unusual to have twenty people in the document all feeding in their ideas and you have to be able to distinguish: what is a ‘showstopper’ so a fact that needs to go in or something that has to come out because it’s incorrect, what’s personal opinion and what’s style. And if you have a really clear idea of that, there does come a point where you can say, ‘Actually, no, I’ve taken in everything I need to take in and I’m happy with the piece now.’

 

Just to add to that, sharing with the team and the team is the editor, of all things I’ve written and shared with you or shared with the team, I’ve never had a case where it’s been made worse by a suggestion, the work has always improved.

 

Angus Montgomery: If the person who is giving you feedback understands what this piece of writing is trying to do and that person is sort of vaguely competent, then they will give you useful constructive feedback. 

 

Sarah Stewart: I feel like maybe we’re rambling on this or maybe I’m rambling on this, but In terms of feedback givers, it’s very easy to criticise someone. It’s very easy to say ‘this isn’t good’. It takes intelligence to say what’s not quite working about it. So when you are giving feedback to someone, really consider, first of all, of course, their feelings because you don’t want to come across as, well you don’t want to be an awful person, but what’s useful for them to know about this. And we’ve got some fantastic posters around the office on how to give feedback effectively. So just make sure that if you’re required to give feedback, you’re doing it in an intelligent, kind way.

 

Angus Montgomery: In a constructive fashion.

 

Sarah Stewart: Yes, better. 

 

Angus Montgomery: and your next point?

 

Sarah Stewart:... is to ‘read’. Reading is as important as writing. If you want to be a really good writer, you have to read lots and you should read good things. You know like the classics like Nabokov, James Joyce and Jane Austen. Yes of course you should read them because they’re fantastic, and it’s a pleasure to read a good writer. 

 

But also, just  don’t be too much of a snob about it.Read a Mills and Boon book, read Fifty Shades of Grey, and again no shade on E.L James because she’s a multi-millionaire doing what she loves.

 

Angus Montgomery: It takes skill to write that stuff surely.

 

Sarah Stewart: Yeah. In particular I would say read poetry. Not only because I think it’s super cool, poetry can teach you a lot about conveying complex ideas in a very short space of time and you know, we’re you know kids of the digital age, we don’t have a very long attention span so understanding how to kind of compress ideas is very important.

 

But poetry can teach you a lot about the music of a sentence. And especially for speech writing, it’s particularly important. A poem can teach you about the sound of words, the meter, how a piece scans, it’s called scansion. So there’s no alchemy to writing really well, it is just about practicing writing and reading. 

 

Angus Montgomery: Any poem in particular or poet in particular?

 

Sarah Stewart: Well...good question. I would recommend the Confessional poets, so like Sylvia Plath. But actually, do you know what? Any American poet from the 1950s onwards because American poetry in particular, they have a way of, I say ‘they’ in a very general sense, I would recommend the Confessional School and the New York School in particular  – – as you’ve asked – because they just say it how it is. 

 

And also the Beat poets as well, although they can talk a lot in abstraction, you can learn a lot by their directness.

 

Angus Montgomery: Yeah. 

 

Sarah Stewart: So yeah. Ginsberg, Kerouac.

 

Angus Montgomery: Yeah.

 

Sarah Stewart: Frank O'Hara.

 

Angus Montgomery: Very minimal viable words. 

 

My next principle, next tip, is quite a practical one. And it’s something that might not work for everyone, but I find really really helpful, which is to never start with a blank page.

 

So if you’re writing something, the scariest thing is when you kind of open up a Word doc or a Google doc or have a physical sheet of blank paper in front of you, and you’re like ‘oh my god, what do I do with this now?’ like ‘I need to turn this from this blank sheet into a speech or an article or a blog post or a presentation or whatever it might be. 

 

And that blankness is the most terrifying part of this and starting is the most terrifying part of any project and writing is no different. So the way that I deal with that is when I have a blank page in front of me, I immediately go to Google or other search engines are available obviously, and or previous pieces that I’ve done that are similar, copy paste and just throw as much text as I can on to that page, that even if it’s only tangentially similar, gives me something to work from.

 

So that I’m not starting from scratch, so that I have something to bounce ideas off of or something re-work or something that guides me in the right direction, and also takes away that fear of you know, just having a totally blank page in front of you.

 

Sarah Stewart: I do that all the time actually. If I’m writing a speech for example, I always write ‘good morning or good afternoon everyone’. And then if anyone asks me if I’ve made any progress, I can at least say I’ve made a start!

 

Angus Montgomery: Yeah exactly. The vital start is there. 

 

Sarah Stewart: Yeah. It’s psychologically important to have something down on paper. 

 

Angus Montgomery: Yeah. 

 

Sarah Stewart: You’re right.

 

Angus Montgomery: So I think it’s that, it’s that starting and then sort of flowing, flowing from there basically. 

 

Sarah Stewart: Yeah.

 

Angus Montgomery: And what’s your next principle?

 

Sarah Stewart: So my next principle I’ve entitled, ‘enough is enough’. So just don’t overdo it. Just write enough, and enough doesn’t mean writing an epic poem nor does it mean writing a haiku. Sorry, there are a lot of poetry allusions in this – but it means writing enough to get the job done. 

 

And the poet Frank O’Hara had a lovely quote about, you should read it, it’s called...it’s in a piece of writing that he called Personism: A Manifesto. And he describes writing and how effective writing is wearing a piece of clothing so it fits you perfectly, so it does exactly the job that it’s meant to do. 

 

Angus Montgomery: It’s showing the thing.

 

Sarah Stewart: And you might ‘show the thing’...it’s a very confusing analogy. 

 

Angus Montgomery: It’s a very confusing mixing, we’re mixing several metaphors here to prove a point.

 

Sarah Stewart: Yeah.

 

Angus Montgomery: But yeah. And bringing me, without really a segue in this one, but bringing us nicely nevertheless to the final point which is, ‘stay human’.

 

And this is not necessarily a writing point, this is something obviously that we should be all doing all the time in whatever work we do, but the reason I’m talking about it, and we’ve touched on this several times, writing isn’t something that we just do in isolation on our own 

 

Writing our, the writing that we do is helping one person, one human being, convey a message to another person, another human being or a group of them. And the people in that process are really really important, like the written word is important, but the people in that process are the most important parts.

 

So just when we’re dealing with people, we always try to be as nice and humble and listen as much as we can and advice and guide and all those sorts of things. But just try and do it nicely because it can be a stressful situation for people. 

So thank you Sarah.

 

Sarah Stewart: Thank you Angus. This has been nice, hasn’t it?

 

Angus Montgomery: This has been nice.

 

Sarah Stewart: So that brings us to the end of our 10 principles. This podcast will be embedded into a blog post, which will be published on the GDS blog. Please leave your comments for clear writing and any advice that you have for others.

 

Angus Montgomery: Thank you for listening to the latest episode of the GDS podcast. We hope you enjoyed it and if you want to listen to previous episodes that we’ve done or what to subscribe for the future, then please just do to wherever it is that you download your podcasts from and hit the subscribe button.

 

And we hope to have you as a listener again soon. 

 

Sarah Stewart: Farewell. 

 

Government Digital Service Podcast #10: Improving government services with GOV.UK step by step navigation

Government Digital Service Podcast #10: Improving government services with GOV.UK step by step navigation

June 28, 2019

Listen to this month’s episode of the Government Digital Service podcast to hear about the award winning step by step work on GOV.UK. Kate Ivey-Williams and Sam Dub, from the GOV.UK team, explain why and how the navigation was created and its impact on users. 

A full transcript of the episode follows. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Laura Stevens and I’m a writer here at GDS. Today we’re going to be speaking about the award-winning ‘Step by Step’ navigation on GOV.UK. This is a navigation that breaks down complex tasks into simple steps. The navigation follows you throughout your journey, indicating what to do now and next. It also shows you what previous steps you might have missed. For example, getting a provisional driving licence before booking a driving theory test. To tell me more about this is Kate Ivey-Williams and Sam Dub, so, please, could you introduce yourself and tell me what you do here at GDS, for Kate first?

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


Yes, so I am Service Design Lead for GOV.UK. That basically means my work focuses on 2 things. It’s looking at how the platform of GOV.UK helps government to deliver services, but also looking at how the GOV.UK programme, as a group of people, are helping government to improve those services.

 

Laura Stevens:


Sounds great, and Sam?

 

Sam Dub:  


I’m a product manager working on GOV.UK. For the last couple of years, really, I’ve been focusing on navigation of GOV.UK. That means, really, making things easy to find, but also, with ‘Step by Step’ navigation, making things easier to do. Ways that we can join things up so they make sense for users is a key part of that.

 

Laura Stevens:


Okay. Your team won a prestigious design award last month. That was from D&AD. How did you feel when you found out about that?

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


Really exciting. I think it’s like you spend a lot of time looking inwards at government and having a strong belief that you’re working on the right things and doing things that make sense, but it’s very nice to get recognition from people outside of your world of work, and peers across the industry, that the thing that you’re working on is a good thing and that it feels meaningful beyond just the context that we’re working in.

 

Sam Dub:


I think one of the things that’s really nice about it is it’s an iteration on GOV.UK. A lot of the work there are like re-launches or rebrands, and this is like a continuation of some of the thinking that’s been around GOV.UK since the beginning. It feels like a kind of validation of a process of iteration, like week by week, month by month, we’ve got to this new place. It’s quite exciting.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


I was a bit unsure, actually, whether we would win an award, because obviously GOV.UK has won 2 awards previously, mostly focused on… They were awards for content design, and I was unsure whether entering this they would just see it like, “GOV… It’s just the same thing.”

 

Laura Stevens:


You’re just getting all the awards, aren’t you?

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


They’re just, “What do you want another award for?” But we entered it in a different category and I think they did understand that we’re trying to achieve slightly different things. Driven by the same principles, we’re now focusing on doing slightly different things and working in slightly different ways than we did 5 years ago, or whenever we won the previous awards.

 

Sam Dub:


It built on that work. The early achievement, the big achievement of GOV.UK in its first year was just getting everything together in the same place. That’s something that Neil Williams was talking about on… I think it was the first or second episode of the podcast.

 

Laura Stevens:  


Yes, the first podcast; yes.

 

Sam Dub:


He was leading that work. Just getting all those departmental websites shut down and all that content moved into one place was a huge achievement. Then there was a, kind of, follow-on challenge for that, which was like, “How do we make this stuff findable and usable, and how do we join this content up and these transactions up across departments?”

We’re able to do what we’re doing because of that work that came before us, but it follows in a, kind of, tradition of ideas of, like, joining things up for users, making things easy, like making sure that users don’t have to understand the structure of government in order to find what they need.

 

Laura Stevens:  


This is what I was going to talk about, like how ‘Step by Step’ came about. What was the genesis of it?

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:


It’s, kind of, the reason that I joined GOV.UK. I was one of the first service designers to join GDS as an organisation. Lou Downe joined first and established service design as a profession within GDS, and then they brought in myself and another person. I joined GOV.UK with the idea that, “Okay, you’re going to be on GOV.UK and you’re going to think about how does GOV.UK do services?” 

I’ve been at GDS for about 4 years now, and it took, probably, about a year and a half before we could kick off this work in any meaningful way, because we had to still do quite a lot of technical work on GOV.UK, bringing all the content into one place so that we could do consistent universal navigation across all content. There was quite a lot of technical debt to deal with. 

It’s been ticking along and our ideas have been evolving, a year and a half ago, we were able to really kick this work off in earnest and think about how all of those ideas translate into something actual, real.

 

Sam Dub:  


Yes, and it’s such an attractive idea. For me, somebody who didn’t have all that background, coming to it at that point, it was just such an exciting idea – the idea that we could have, like, a single page that would tell you everything you needed to do in order to get something done, something big, and chunky, and meaningful, like learning to drive, or starting a business, or employing someone, these complicated processes. If, as government, we could just create one page that’s well structured and explains exactly what you need to do, that’s such a valuable thing for users, for citizens. That was a really exciting idea to just pick up and run with.

 

Laura Stevens:


Why did you pick the first one, which was ‘Learning to Drive’? 

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


There was quite a lot of previous work done in that area. When Lou first joined GDS, they went off to Swansea, and worked a lot with DVLA, and were looking at a lot of the driving services, so we had quite a historical knowledge base in that area and already had quite a good understanding of that journey. 

From that respect, it was quite a good one to pick up, because we had stuff we could build on, but it also is a journey that’s quite simple, and linear, and quite easily understood.

 

Sam Dub:


I think it’s, kind of, exemplifies what this pattern, this design pattern, this new feature on GOV.UK is for, in that inside ’Learning to Drive’ you’ve got a load of guidance. You’ve got stuff like… The ‘Highway Code’ is probably the best-known part of that. You’ve got all these kinds of transactions you need to do with government. 

Before you start, you’ve got to get a provisional driving licence. That’s a transaction with government. Then, at some point in that process, you’ve got to do your theory test. You’ve got to take some driving lessons. Then you’ve got to take your practical test. 

You’ve got to do those things in the right order, like you can’t take a driving test until you’ve got your provisional licence. So, it was just a really nice kind of model for how we could start organising that content in a simple sequence that made sense to people, to make that easier.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


‘Learn to Drive’ had quite a good mix of things across it that we could start testing the pattern slightly about how it could deal with real processes that a user’s going through, not just the government processes.

 

Laura Stevens:


I was actually going to talk through the design of that, because it went through quite a few rounds, iterations. 

Sam Dub:


Like with most things, we start in identifying a need. We knew that we needed to join up transactions and guidance, because you need both. You need to engage with the guidance, and you need to do these transactions, so we started developing prototypes for how we do that. 

As with most things in GDS and GOV.UK, we start with user research. That’s bringing in people who are in the process of learning to drive. We put these early prototypes in front of them and we really asked them just to go through the… To engage with them naturally, as if they were in their own homes, and do the parts of the journey where they were at, at the moment. 

That allowed us to evolve a design over… I think it was, in the creation of the original pattern, about 10 rounds of user research. Each time, we were bringing a slightly different prototype, like building on the learnings and insights from the previous round, and really honing this design pattern to a point where users felt comfortable with it. It felt natural, it felt intuitive to them.

Laura Stevens:


You also went up to Neath, as well.

Kate Ivey-Williams:

 
To the Digital Accessibility Centre. Yes, that was good. We went a whole crew of us. We were, like, the back end, front end: me, the designer; you, the product manager; user research. We all went along and we tested it with, I think, around 10 people who were in the Digital Accessibility Centre who have varying access needs, whether that be cognitive ability or sight, or perhaps it’s… I think one of the people we tested with has ADHD [Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder]. There were quite a lot of different access needs that we tested against, and that was… It was such an interesting day, yes.

 

Sam Dub:


Yes, we learnt tons from that, and that directly translated into improvements to the designs that make it work better – for everybody, actually. 

 

Laura Stevens:


Now there are 41 ‘Step by Step’ lives. You’ve got quite a range. You’ve got, obviously, the first one, ‘Learning to Drive a Car’, ‘Getting Married’, ‘Getting Divorced’. On a slightly lighter note, you’ve got ‘Reporting Treasure’, as well.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


Yes. 

 

Sam Dub:


Yes.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


My favourite.

 

Sam Dub:


For the metal detectorists out there, if you find your Anglo-Saxon hoard, unfortunately you have to tell the government about that. You can’t just keep it and so that’s a ‘Step by Step’ process. It’s about, like, we deliberately picked early on these wildly diverse types of processes from, like, something really emotionally taxing and legally complicated, like divorce, and then something like, if you find buried treasure or the cargo of a shipwreck, you have to tell government about that. We were testing to make sure that this pattern could handle all these different kinds of interactions that people have to make with government.

 

Laura Stevens:


How did you go about creating these step by step?

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:   


We’ve developed a bit of a standardised process now where we’ve now got enough traction with government that in the early days we were going out to departments and saying, “We think your thing would work really well as part of this user journey thing that we’re doing on GOV.UK. You don’t really know what it is yet, but we’d love to give it a go. Can you be our alpha partners?” to a point where we’ve now got enough traction with government that they’re coming to us so we’ve actually got hundreds of ‘Step by Step’ journeys in our backlog that we could build, and now it’s about picking up them, based on prioritisation.

And once we… We have 2 different starting points. Sometimes you have a really tangible idea of what the journey is and who the users are. When you’ve got that idea, you can start building a draft of that journey internally in GOV.UK with our content designers, who are brilliant service designers, actually. They interrogate the content on GOV.UK and start mapping out a draft of this thing. 

Then, alongside that, we start working out who are the departments involved? Who do we need to get into a room to go through this journey, validate it, make sure that we are going to be pointing at the right things, in the right order, so that users can do all the things they need to do?

Sometimes you start off with a much more fuzzy service area where you’re not quite sure what journeys should be built in that area, or it’s just it’s a bit complicated. You need to think: how are you going to break that down? 

 

Laura Stevens:


Does that journey happen here at GDS, or would you go out to the departments?

 

Sam Dub:  


It’s generally whatever works for the participants. I think this is, maybe, a thing that, outside government, people are not necessarily so aware of: that, with a journey like employing somebody, that’s how a user sees it in terms of, “Okay, I need to hire someone for my business,” but actually that’s owned. The guidance and the transactions are owned by 5 different departments that could be in 5 different offices, in 5 different parts of the country. 

What’s exciting is getting all those people in a room together and going, “Actually, collectively, as government, we own this thing. We own the journey. You don’t just own your little bit. We all, together, can make the journey of employing someone really simple, quick, seamless.” It’s really exciting getting those people in the room. People are generally really up for that, like they’re enthusiastic about making the whole thing better.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


More often than not, as well, these workshops, it’s the first time that these people have ever met or thought about how their things join up. That’s really one of the key reasons why this ‘Step by Step’ stuff exists. It’s not just about creating a good experience for users who are trying to do things with government. It’s like 20% that, but it’s like 80% getting government to understand their services, and know who else in government they need to collaborate with when they’re thinking about improving those services, and getting them to take ownership of that as a joined-up, cross-departmental group of people.

 

Sam Dub:


That’s what we really hope happens with this stuff, is that when we’re just getting started in terms of, like, we’re at 41 at the moment, there are hundreds of these kinds of services that the government provides.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  
So many – so many. 

 

Sam Dub:


We’ve got a lot of work to do.

 

Laura Stevens:


You’ve been busy.

 

Sam Sub:  


But then once, even for … So, the 40 that we’ve mapped out – and you can go see them on GOV.UK – they’re also just the beginning. Those things are 7 or 8 step processes. It’s really great to have a group of people come together and, maybe, have a think about: “Okay, now we’ve mapped it out and seen it all in one place, actually that’s quite complicated,” like, “This, maybe, doesn’t need to be an 8 step process. Maybe we have a policy goal which is reducing this down to 3 steps.” That as, like, Step By Steps’ as an enabler of, like, transformation and improvement of services is one of our goals for this work.

 

Kate Ivey Williams:


It’s journey mapping, basically, which is like… As a service designer, that’s our bread and butter, is doing journey mapping, because that’s how you understand how everything works and what’s going wrong, but it’s translating that into something that’s, kind of, shiny and people want it. 

 

Laura Stevens:


There have been some really good outcomes, I’ve got some figures, like since launch it’s been used by 10.5 million people. Is that still correct? 

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:

 
Yes, possibly more because I think that’s the numbers for the overview pages, which are… Within every ‘Step by Step’ journey you’ve got, like, the overview page, which is the journey on one page, but then every page within that end-to-end service will also have the ‘Step by Step’ navigation on. Actually, there are more people using the navigation on the content and transaction pages than they are using the overview pages, so yes.

 

Sam Dub:


Yes, that’s one of the key insights that are shaping GOV.UK, is the fact that users generally start from search, and they land deep in GOV.UK on content, or they might only think about the process in terms of a transaction. They might think about driving in terms of:  “Okay, I’ve got to take a test.” Actually, there’s a load of stuff you need to do before you get to there. It’s about helping users, when they arrive on a piece of content, to go, “Actually, this is part of a 5 step process. Maybe I need to hop back a few steps, do a little bit first, and then I can do this bit.” 

We’re making it clear on the site. You’ll see it looks like a kind of underground map on the right-hand side of webpages. It’s a beautiful, responsive design, so it looks good on mobile, too. It’ll show you exactly, using this kind of underground line metaphor, exactly where you are in that process. 

We’ve seen that in the lab, users telling us, like, “This is really useful. This makes this process seem manageable,” for some things that often don’t, things that people often need, maybe get professional help or have to call and have to get a lawyer to come and help them do it because it feels so vast and unmanageable. Just by breaking it down and saying, “This is what you need to do now. This is what you need to do next,” really, really helps people.

Laura Stevens:


How do you know that people are reading the content and making use of it?

 

Sam Dub:  


I think we start with user research, but then we start looking for data at [site] scale [when we] start publishing things on GOV.UK. One of the things that we developed alongside the ‘Step by Step’ navigation is this new component. You’ll see it at the bottom of every single page on GOV.UK. It’s just got one very short question in a little blue bar at the bottom of the page, and it just says, ‘Is this useful, yes or no?’. It’s a kind of live usefulness vote that we’ve got running on every page of the site. 

This is a common technique across the web. We didn’t invent this, but it gives you a very useful starting metric for what’s working for users and what’s not. It’ll often flag an issue that you then might want to take into a user research lab and look at more in detail: “Actually, what’s going wrong here?” But one of the first signs we had that we were like, “Really on the right track here,” is that the usefulness scores for the new ‘Step by Step’ journeys that we published – the first [set of] ‘Step by Step’ journeys – were way higher than some of the things that they were replacing, and equivalent formats. 

We had, like 80%, 90% usefulness scores, which were great news for us. I think the no prompt, if you say, ‘No, this page isn’t useful,’ you’re prompted to give us a bit of feedback. If one of the ‘Step by Steps’ isn’t working for you, there is this mechanism for people to say, “Actually, this is why. This is the bit you’ve… You’ve missed this bit,” or, “I’m in this circumstance and this doesn’t work for me.” It’s a way of us getting feedback at scale from users, and that’s always where we’re focused. We’re always watching the live performance data of what we’re doing, to make sure that it’s right for the circumstance, that it’s right for where we’ve applied it.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:

 
We know it helps people because we’ve seen, for example, the ‘Applying for tax-free childcare’, once we introduce the ‘Step by Step’ – well, the hypothesis before we built the ‘Step by Step’ was that people were not checking whether it was right for them, or they weren’t checking their eligibility before jumping into the transaction itself to apply. They were using the application process as a bit of an eligibility checker, which is not what it’s built for. 

Because of that, a lot of people were dropping out, or failing, or applying for the wrong thing. After introducing the ‘Step by Step’ navigation, in the analytics we saw more people who were hitting the transaction page but then jumping back to the eligibility guidance, and then coming back to the transaction and going through it successfully because they were going through with confidence that this was the right thing for them. Fewer people were applying for it incorrectly.

 

Sam Dub:


That – those kind improvements, getting people just, like, not jumping into transactions that are wrong for them, filling in the right form – is like, one, it saves users tons of time, and primarily that’s what we care about. The secondary impact of that is that also, in turn, saves government loads of money, like having to deal with forms that aren’t filled in right, or calls to call centres because someone doesn’t understand how stuff [has been]… How a service works. That also costs government money, and civil servants time. So, by making things better for users, it has this benefit of saving government time and money, as well, which is really nice.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:


I’m nodding. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Can you give me a step by step to making a ‘Step by Step’?

Sam Dub:

There’s a serious one. As a family, we’ve been talking a lot about lasting power of attorney, and everyone in my family is healthy and good, but my parents are in their late 60s and it’s a sensible thing for people to start talking about and planning ahead. 

So, within, like, family WhatsApp groups and email, people are just pinging around links to GOV.UK guidance, going, ‘Have a look at this. Is this like…?’ Because there’s a different role for the person who is making the lasting power of attorney, and the people who will, essentially, have an obligation to look after that person if something was to happen to their health. 

We’re pinging around guidance, discussing this, and I’m sitting there going, “We should totally do this,” like, “There’s a user need here.” This is complicated. There are decisions being taken. It’s a thing that some people go and seek legal advice about. 

Whilst, as a product manager, I wouldn’t abuse my position to get stuff made that’s helpful to me, there’s an indication that there might be a need there. That’s something that we could do the research to actually see if there really was something there, but I’d love to see that happen.

 

Laura Stevens:


How would you go about doing that if you wanted to create that particular one?

 

Sam Dub:  


In that case, you would look at the parts of the service and the guidance that exists around it. Then you get someone like Kate to come and run this, these workshops that we’ve now got pretty practised at, but Kate can probably tell you what happens.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


Yes, less me and more the content designers, because they are experts in knowing what’s on GOV.UK and how it all fits together. They’re really good. Content design is basically about explaining government services in a really clear way so that people understand them. 

And I think we’ve now got to a point where we’ve got the right balance where we’re taking something in that helps them share their knowledge and helps us to get moving quickly so that we can give them something back quickly that is the results of their collaboration.

 

Sam Dub:


Invariably, something does emerge that’s new and that is a new way of framing something. That is something that no one department could have done on their own.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


Exactly.

 

Sam Dub:


We certainly couldn’t have come, arrived with that up our sleeve and said, like, “This is how it’s going to be structured.” It’s a genuine collaborative process where the input of the expertise in the departments about the different parts of those journeys come together to create this thing that is, hopefully, framed in a way that makes sense to users and is how they think about it, rather than how government thinks about that problem.

 

Laura Stevens:


Yes, I was going to touch on that, how you’re making government think about itself as a place that delivers services. It sounds like, [with all] this collaboration, that’s been a key outcome from this.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


There are a lot going on across government to help them think about things in a slightly different way, to help them think about themselves as service providers. Like, the new service standard is really strong on that, and about getting government to think about services and whole problems, and tackling those collaboratively, but I think ‘Step by Step’ is one of the really tangible tools that enables departments to start work on that. It’s the first step on the road, I think, yes. 

 

Laura Stevens:


And I should probably also finish the Step by Step. Once the workshop has been done, what’s the next stage with your service here? 

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


Usually, if we’re going into that workshop with a fairly good idea of the journey and we have that very draft-y thing in the publishing tool, as the conversations are going on with the departments that’s been facilitated by someone from our team, someone else in our team is sitting in the background, updating the draft of that thing in the publishing tool. 

So, by the end of the workshop we can show them the tangible output, a sort of first-draft example of what they’ve been discussing, with the caveat that we need to take that away and do a bit more massaging of the content.

Then the thing gets “2i” internally. That’s a jargon-y term for it gets reviewed by another content designer within GOV.UK. Then we send it out for fact-check with departments. This follows our standard mainstream guidance fact-check process, where it goes to the subject-matter experts within departments, who then say, “Yes, that is factually correct. Go ahead and sign it off.” Or they give us feedback about, “Actually, you’ve misunderstood something there.” 

 

Sam Dub:


I always enjoy when it goes to the lawyers. That’s when you know it’s like… That’s when you know you’re changing stuff, because the lawyers are there to make sure that, in the way that we’re presenting this in a simple way, we aren’t straying from what’s legally correct, and we aren’t misleading people, but we are… Presenting some of these complicated legal processes as a simple one-pager does mean it needs to get read and fact-checked by a lawyer in the process. There is often this wide range of expertise that we need to consult, and people who, in the process of reframing this stuff, we’ve had to consult, but everything’s gone live. At every point, we’ve reached a consensus. When everyone sees it at the end, they go, “Oh,” like, “That’s better.” 

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:

 
Yes.

 

Laura Stevens:


Does it go back to that point of, exposing those…? Perhaps the policy challenges that this is what part of the process is.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


Yes. I think sometimes a confusing and complex policy is hidden in guidance that is spread across GOV.UK. When you extract it and expose it in this really simplified view of that thing, you actually realise the policy is complicated or the thing doesn’t make sense, because the policy is complicated. 

Hopefully, that is… Showing them that is the start of a process of thinking: “How can we simplify this, because this is confusing users and this is making work for us, as government, it’s making work for them to try and understand something which should just be simple.”

 

Sam Dub:  


That was really one of the early learnings of this, was that we needed to get the policymakers in the room for those workshops, because often there can be a process where our content designers do a bunch of work and then they pass it over to policy people. Some context is lost there. If you’ve got the policymakers in the room from the start, that’s another kind of collaboration. It’s different departments and it’s different disciplines being there to inform the process.

 

Laura Stevens:


These ‘Step by Steps’ have also been very helpful to the voice assistant work, as well, haven’t they?

 

Sam Dub:  


Yes. This is part of a broader strategy. We sometimes talk about GOV.UK now… Or trying to make GOV.UK understandable to humans and understandable to machines. I sometimes wonder, when we say that, what people are imagining, like some kind of robot overlords.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:


Exactly.

 

Laura Stevens:  


Our new user. 

 

Sam Dub:


To be clear, to clear this up on the GDS podcast, not for the robot overlords, one example of what we mean by that is so that our content is understandable to search engines. If you do a search for becoming a driving instructor or learning to drive a car, from a search engine on mobile – actually, this is something that’s gone live in the last month – they’re able to see the… The search engine is able to look at the structure of our content. 

You get, like, this little carousel of steps that appears that you can swipe through. You can jump to: “I’m at step 3 of ‘Learning to Drive’,” like, “I’ve got my provisional licence, so now I’m studying for my test, so I can jump to that.” That’s powered by some mark-up that we’ve added to our ‘Step by Steps’ that makes them easier for machines to read. It’s the same mark-up that powers search that can also power voice assistance, so you can query those ‘Step by Steps’ – or the content within those ‘Step by Steps’ – in the same way.

 

Laura Stevens:


I’ve also seen a figure floating round that there are, like, 400 services you want to do this to. Is that how many, or is it literally just-?

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


That’s that finger in the air. I think that’s based off of the amount of mainstream guidance we have, which is it covers the really major, far-reaching government services, but, because ‘Step by Step’ navigation can work across all content on GOV.UK, it means that even beyond those 400, if there are departments who are sitting in some really niche area of government, they can still start using this pattern for something that [might]… Maybe it only has 200 users a year, but they can still start thinking about it and piecing their journey together in the depths of Whitehall content, as well. There’s potentially way more than 400, but that covers some of the really key services that we know we would like to build.

 

Laura Stevens:


What sort of journeys are definitely not ‘Step by Steps’? Like, when you’re thinking, if you’re listening and you’re working on a service, what would be not suitable?

 

Sam Dub:


This is a crude indicator of it, it’s generally stuff you need to do in more than one sitting, like you can’t learn to drive or get married in one web session. It’s going to take a bit longer.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:  


One day. I think you can in Estonia, probably.

 

Sam Dub:


It will generally be something where you’ve got to read a bit of GOV.UK, go and do a thing in the real world, come back, and then read or do something else. That’s a, kind of, gut-feel indicator of when some navigation that’s going to help people join up those activities is going to help.

Kate Ivey-Williams:   

When I think about the ‘Step by Steps’ I want to build, one of the ones I really wanted to do was what to do when someone dies, because it is these high-emotion, really difficult times of life when the last thing you want to be doing is thinking about government admin. I know they’re a bit depressing, but that’s what motivates me, is to take the pressure off people at those horrible times and make life a little bit easier. 

I think other ‘Step by Steps’ I would love to build would be, like, helping people who are out of work, and tying together all the services and the suite of things in that space that could support them in that time of life, or other things like that. That’s where we can add, I think, the most value.

 

Sam Dub:  


It’s those moments in life where you really value somebody saying, like, “You just do this, do this, do this, and you’ll be fine.” Yes, that’s what motivates us, I think.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:   

Totally, yes.

 

Laura Stevens:


Not adding unnecessary stress or pressure on a highly emotional situation.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:   

Yes. Who wants to think about government when you’ve got all that other stuff on your plate? No-one.

I think it’s about making government much more invisible. Ultimately, people don’t want to think about that. They want to get on with their lives.

 

Laura Stevens:


“Thank you” to Kate, and, “Thank you” to Sam today. You can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service podcast on Apple Music, Spotify, and all other major podcast platforms, and you can read the transcripts on Podbean. Thank you very much again.

 

Sam Dub:  


Thank you.

 

Kate Ivey-Williams:   

Thanks for having us.

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #9: An interview with Chantal Donaldson-Foyer and Warren Smith on corruption and the Global Digital Marketplace

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #9: An interview with Chantal Donaldson-Foyer and Warren Smith on corruption and the Global Digital Marketplace

May 30, 2019

In the latest episode of the GDS podcast, senior writer Sarah Stewart talks to Chantal Donaldson-Foyer, Head of Product and Warren Smith, Programme Director about the Global Digital Marketplace. The trio discuss how the Global Digital Marketplace is helping to tackle corruption, a $2.6 trillion problem.

 

Sarah Stewart: Hello, and welcome to the GDS Podcast. I’m Sarah Stewart, I’m a senior writer at the Government Digital Service. I’m in the studio today with two aficionados in the world of government procurement, Chantal Donaldson-Foyer and Warren Smith. Chantal, you’re head of product for the Global Digital Marketplace and Warren, you are the programme director for the Global Digital Marketplace. Welcome to you both.

 

Chantal Donaldson-Foyer: Thank you.

 

Warren Smith: Thank you very much.

 

Sarah: So just to start off, could you tell me a little bit more about your roles, what exactly you do?

 

Chantal: All right. So as head of product of the Global Digital Marketplace, I look after the programme as a whole in terms of our offering and what we’re going to do with the country. So we’ve got teams who are looking after each region and I help the product managers for each of these regions build up their offer and actually deliver it.

 

Sarah: Cool, Warren?

 

Warren: So, I have the easy job, I set the direction, the vision and make sure that we have the senior stakeholder relationships maintained in our partner countries, and that includes with the FCO as well.

 

Sarah: Now, government procurement enthusiasts will know what the Digital Marketplace is – but for those who don’t I thought it would be a good idea to do a quick recap before we move onto talk about your international work. So what is the Digital Marketplace?

 

Warren: The Digital Marketplace is a platform that is available to all of the UK public sector to enable them to buy digital data and technology products and services in support of government transformation.

 

Sarah: And we do that along with the Crown Commercial Service?

 

Warren: Yes, we do, they’re a key partner organisation for us in the Cabinet Office.

 

Sarah: Now, before the pair of you worked on the Global Digital Marketplace you were also on the Digital Marketplace.

 

Warren: Correct.

 

Sarah: I did describe you as aficionados earlier, so I’m going to put this claim to the test, and enrich our listeners understanding, and try and make government procurement even more interesting, with a quiz.

 

Warren: Love it.

 

Sarah: You’re going head-to-head.

 

Chantal: No pressure.

 

Sarah: No pressure. Okay, so this is on the Digital Marketplace. What happens when you open up the procurement market to suppliers of all sizes rather than just big tech companies? I’ve a list of four things that you could possibly pick from.

 

Warren: Oh, it’s multiple choice.

 

Chantal: Okay, yes.

 

Sarah: It’s multiple choice.

 

Warren: You encourage a more diverse supply chain to be involved.

 

Sarah: That’s on my list. Okay, well done.

 

Chantal: You get better value for money.

 

Sarah: That’s correct. It’s happening even in the room as we speak. There’s the air of…

 

Warren: Anticipation? (Laughter)

 

Sarah: I was going for competition. The increasing competition. And also the locations are more diverse.

 

Warren: Of course. Yes.

 

Sarah: Okay, this might be slightly harder. Second question, what was the Digital Marketplace’s total sales figure at the end of March?

 

Warren: £5.7 billion.

 

Sarah: Wow, correct. Okay, can you tell me what is the government’s aspirational target figure for SME spend?

 

Chantal: The target figure is £1 in every £3 to be spent with SME.

 

Sarah: By which date? Bonus question.

 

Warren: 2022.

 

Sarah: Yes.

 

Sarah: Which government launched its own digital marketplace in record time by working with us and using our open source code?

 

Chantal: Australia.

 

Sarah: Correct.

 

Chantal: Yes.

 

Sarah: The bonus question, how many weeks did Australia take to launch its own digital marketplace?

 

Warren: Six.

 

Chantal: Five?

 

Sarah: Five is the correct answer

 

Warren: 5 weeks, good on them.

 

Sarah: I have to say, yes, very good, good job. I’ve got to say, it’s a relief between the pair of you, you both got them right. So I think we’re all up to speed on the digital marketplace, so let’s go global. What is the Global Digital Marketplace?

 

Warren: The Global Digital Marketplace is a programme that’s working in partnership with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office aimed to help overseas governments in emerging economies to tackle corruption by transforming their procurement of digital data and technology products and services.

 

Sarah: How did that come about?

 

Warren: It was mainly following the summit that took place in 2016. Where it was felt that there was an opportunity to apply the same approaches that we’ve taken in the UK to open up markets to open up procurement and make it more transparent as a way of helping to tackle closed markets, closed processes, and more opaque processes that are often the breeding ground for corruption so that was really the sort of genesis of the concept that became the Global Digital Marketplace programme.

 

Sarah: The corruption angle is very interesting,how in practical terms is this corruption happening?

 

Warren: So it’s a good question. I think when considering corruption you have to look at the whole system in which corruption is taking place. On the one end you’ve got the very obvious corruption which is where individuals are for personal gain misappropriating public funds, but I think you also have to look on the opposite end of the spectrum where weaknesses within the system could lead to corrupt practices  to take place. So perhaps inefficiency and effectiveness within government processes or the systems, or opacity within those processes, a lack of transparency, these are all opportunities for reform and are often the breeding ground for where the corruption can start to manifest.

I think certainly the Global Digital Marketplace Programme is focusing on designing out opportunities for corruption to take place and focusing on the people involved so that we can help to build capability and increase integrity.

 

Sarah: We spend $9.5 trillion a year, so that’s global government procurement spend, and that’s not just IT, and of that number 2.6 trillion, which is nearly 30%, is lost through bribery or corruption.

 

Warren: Yes.

 

Sarah: So it’s a huge thing that you’re trying to tackle here. How exactly does it work, how did you begin this process?

 

Warren:  So we first engaged with a range of governments that were priority countries for the FCO. This is after we got the endorsement and the backing to actually take this approach. It all really starts by having the conversations with the governments and the supply chains and civil society organisations within those countries to understand what are the barriers, what are the challenges, and equally what are the opportunities for how we can work together.

We’re not claiming that we’ve solved the problem by any means in the UK but we’ve made a start, and an important start, in showing that a different way of thinking and working in – to tackle procurement is – it is possible. We also look to opportunities to how we can learn from other governments as well as sharing what we’ve been able to achieve in the UK.

 

Sarah: I’m really interested in the diplomatic angle here, because – say for example your friend is singing very, very badly, you might not want to tell them directly they’re singing very, very badly but it’s in everyone’s interest for them to get better. How do you approach governments, like what’s your first step, and do you take a different approach for every country, do you go and meet them?

 

Warren: Yes, and that’s a really important point, is not to take a standard one size fits all approach, you have to tailor your engagement approach depending on the context, and, yes, I’ve got loads of friends who are terrible singers-

 

Sarah:  Even in a band?

 

Warren: I know, yes, myself included, that’s why I’m never on the vocals. So very quickly, even though the kind of the starting point for the conversation is around tackling corruption and procurement reform, very quickly the conversations turn to government transformation and public service transformation and greater openness and transparency of government.

So I think it’s really important to see the antithesis of the negative and focus on the positive, because that’s very much where the impact and the outcomes that we want to achieve are associated. Yes, that’s how we shift the conversation to one of the future positive.

 

Sarah: And so for the record, who, which countries are we dealing with?

 

Chantal: All right, so we are currently in five countries, so that’s in Latin America, Mexico and Columbia and South Africa in Southern Africa and Indonesia and Malaysia in Southeast Asia.

 

Sarah: What about the discovery work, so how does that kick off?

 

Chantal: So actually to do the discovery we engaged with the UK supply chain to help us conduct all of the research that was necessary for us to define what the delivery of the programme was going to be. So we worked with four partners who come with us to the country and try and understand what are the opportunities that exist, what current best practices or great examples we could kind of build and grow further, and also what the challenges were in the countries to understand where we could add value and where we could work together, share our experience, see whether that can help them, or not.

 

Sarah: So can you tell me some of the things that came out of that early stage discussion work with the suppliers? What kinds of things were they saying about what they wanted?

 

Chantal: Each of the suppliers had a different area of expertise, and an area that they were looking at in countries across all five countries, and including some of our team and some people from GDS came along to the discovery. So actually over the last five weeks, four weeks, we’ve been working together in workshops to define what we have found, because actually we think that by bringing together all our findings we can come up with a better rationale rather than everyone working on their own, so we’re just currently formulating what our findings are.

I think there are several themes that come out, but overall the Global Digital Marketplace is looking at things beyond just the digital marketplace, so it’s all its associated reforms, looking at the standards and assurance process before contracts are awarded, the spend control process, then how procurements are designed, how contracts are designed, then the assurance of the delivery itself, how data underpins all of that, as well as the capabilities that are available in countries, and so together we’ve reviewed all of that and pretty much in all countries found opportunities at each of these levels I think, and in terms of transparency, an exciting part of that is looking at how we could help these countries share more of their data in the open contracting data standard.

 

Sarah:How were those countries identified in the first place?

 

Warren: So we were provided with a long list of potential partner countries by the FCO, which are priority countries for them in terms of anti-corruption. It was necessary for us to prioritise out of that long list, because we’re a small team to begin with, so we used a range of publicly available indexes to give us a general measure of complexity. Things like the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, and various others from, like, the OECD and such like, so that gave us a, yes, an overall score which enabled us to put countries into two different tiers, so we focused on the tier one countries effectively.

Why can't the UK government just write a how-to guide and provide some open source code and let a government get on with it?

Chantal: I think part of what we’re trying to do as well is show our way of working, so bringing user-centred design principles as well as our agile ways of working into our delivery so that we can share that with partner countries live, and so that they can really experience it and feel it, rather than just reading something, some nice guidance and some stats about how it makes things better, but actually being there, feeling it, engaging with the users directly is so powerful that no guide would be able to match that kind of experience, and I think that’s why we wanted our delivery to be very much implementation focused because that’s the best way to learn.

 

Warren: I think just building on that, I mean, that’s exactly what we did for Australia as a bit of an experiment in 2016. They could have just come in and taken the code but actually it was the combination of open source code and technical assistance from UK government, in terms of GDS, sending some people from the team to spend the time with them to take the code and to implement, I think that’s what – it was the combination of those things which led to their delivery in just five weeks.

 

Sarah: So how do you work with five countries, like what does your month look like, where are you touch points, how do you meet, how do you collaborate?

 

Chantal: Well, it’s quite hard, especially when you look at it on a map and think about just the time zone problem, it’s a massive challenge for our team, but it’s also really exciting because we get to work together with the overseas Embassies and High Commissions who support us on the ground. Yes, so we do visits every few months in country and then use other tools to be able to talk, stay close.

Warren: We use Slack we use Hang Outs, so even though we are geographically distant and time zone presents a challenge it’s still possible to have a working relationship with a highly distributed team, I think, yes.

 

Sarah: I’d like to talk a little bit about MOUs, Memorandums of Understanding. You’ve just signed some, tell me about those.

 

Warren: Yes, at the beginning of March, Kevin, our director general, signed three MOUs with some not for profit organisations to support Global Digital Marketplace. That’s really exciting. It’s been some time in the making but we’ve got there so, yes, each of those organisations are recognised globally for their leadership, for their skills, for their experience and capabilities, all of which support the strategic direction of Global Digital Marketplace. So

 

Warren: The first is the Organisation for International Economic Relations, or the OIER Which is also the organisation that’s behind an initiative called ‘United Smart Cities’.

 

Sarah: Where are they based?

 

Warren:  Vienna. The second is the Open Contracting Partnership, or OCP, and the third is the International Association for Contract and Commercial Management, or the IACCM. The OIER and United Smart Cities are focused on implementing information communication and technologies to support the delivery of sustainable smart cities. They are active across the globe in a number of cities and they are closely linked to a number of United Nations agencies as well.

The Open Contracting Partnership is an organisation that’s spun out from the World Bank and they developed the open contracting data standard. They are huge advocates and great campaigners for greater transparency in public procurement, and the Open Contracting Data Standard , or the OCDS, is a key element of the Global Digital Marketplace programme delivery, and the third, the IACCM, is a globally recognised organisation that’s focused on building capability and capacity in commercial and contracting.

 

Sarah: What does their signing the MOU mean in real terms?

 

Warren: It gives us the ability to align on common areas of interest. It gives us the ability to identify countries where we have a common interest in and where we’re already engaging, and it also gives us the ability to bring together those – the skill sets of the different organisations and thinking about the collective rather than the individual.

We have a workshop planned in a couple of weeks’ time in Vienna where we bring together all of the organisations, and we look forward to the next 12, 18 months and identifying those opportunities for collaborative delivery. It’s really important that we look at the tangible delivery opportunities that can draw on the individual capabilities of each organisation.

 

Sarah: Where are you in the process now, you’re collecting feedback from the discoveries?

 

Chantal: Currently we are analysing still the findings from - well, we’re towards the end of that, but we’ve done the trips to the five countries, we’ve brought together all the teams that have been doing that, so both client and GDS, and we’ve brought together the findings and now we’re developing the recommendation. This is going to be a kind of a long list, that we’re going back into countries to present and discuss and shape that together with our key stakeholders there what the next phase of delivery is going to look like.

Our next phase is our alpha phase where we want to pilot different types of approaches, so we’re just trying to see what will that exactly look like and also how does that fit in with what the stakeholders in each country want to achieve, and matching that is our next step

 

Sarah: So are you working with just national governments or sub-national governments?

 

Warren: Both, yes.

 

Sarah: How does your approach differ

 

Warren: The engagement approach is consistent. I think the challenges faced are different. In very much consistent with the UK sub-national, are closest to frontline service delivery, so either city or municipality level, and national obviously is trying to take a national view on what to do.

What we’re trying to do is transcend those organisational boundaries, and actually there is a level between that which might be, say, states in which obviously there are multiple cities or districts, so it’s looking at, okay, what are the needs of each of the different levels of government, where are the challenges, and what are the opportunities that we can help to bring together coordination between national efforts and sub-national efforts on the ground.

 

Sarah: Are you on a timer here? What are your target delivery dates?

 

Warren: Ultimately we’re funded until 2022, which is in line with the UK’s anti- corruption strategy, so that’s another 3 years on that current funding envelope, and while we’re taking the long view we’re looking at how we can then break that down into the next 6, 12, 18 months, and always have a rolling view of what our activities are likely to be notching through that time period.

 

Sarah: Will you identify any other places to work?

 

Sarah: Because I saw a map.

 

Warren: There’s always a map.

 

Sarah: I've seen a map and they had some some rather exotic locations, but I saw Bristol.

 

Warren: I wanted to, in that map, I wanted to call out a couple of UK cities. The list to call out is too long on that small map, but initiatives like the Local Digital Declaration and leading local government organisations who are really showing the way in terms of what digital transformation can look like at a local level. Calling those out on the map gives us the ability to bring together stakeholders who are trying to do the same thing in different countries around the world.

So, for example, the profile of Bristol might be very close to a city in Indonesia where they have a similar demographic or they have a similar set of challenges, there could be value in bringing those stakeholders together to share information, share technologies, share approaches, share lessons learned so that everybody can benefit from one another. That’s certainly a really key part of what we’re trying to do, is bring together and form a global community of reformers where procurement transformation is the heart of their digital transformation as well.

 

Sarah: It’s a bit like town twinning for the digital age.

 

Warren: Funny you should say that because that’s exactly how… Yes, digital twins.

 

Chantal: I would add also that we’re seeing really interesting initiatives in some of our partner countries and we’d like to explore the idea of exchanging experiences between them, so it’s not just a UK to another country exchange but really this community is self-organised and has people talking all over the world. That’s the ambition at least.

 

Warren: Absolutely, and it’s multi-stakeholder, it’s multi-directional, so it’s not about, as you say Chantal, it’s not UK pushing out to others, it’s actually this we’ve got a lot to learn from other governments, the flow of information and expertise should be multi-directional and, yes, when you start connecting different regions and governments in those regions , and the UK is kind of convening that, I think that presents some really interesting opportunities.

Yes, so while we’re focused on the Global Digital Marketplace programme as funded by the FCO with an anti-corruption focus, there’s certainly an opportunity to look beyond that and maybe that’s the next phase of our work.

 

Sarah: So what kinds of initiatives have piqued your interests across the globe?

 

Chantal: think the most exciting initiative I came across was probably in Guadalajara in the Mexican state of Jalisco, where we saw that they’ve done some incredible work at mapping the city and mapping different services, so it’s city services across the city so that you could see what was happening where, and also the town planning so this could inform their future policies and interventions, which was just really, really remarkable.

 

Warren: A couple that I have seen. For example, in Malaysia, Selangor State, they have a very bold ambition to be the smartest state in the Association of Southeast Asia Nations by, I think 2026. That’s all about embracing digital civic participation to deliver transform public services, so their Smart Selangor Delivery Unit is one of our key stakeholders in Malaysia. Equally, in Indonesia, West Java province, so the current governor of West Java was the former mayor of Bandung City, Ridwan Kamil, so he’s a very forward thinking, senior leader who understands the role of digital and technology in delivering transformed public services. Again, they’re likely to be a key partner for us.

 

Chantal:Yes, we’ve seen the Colombian procurement body Colombia Compra Eficiente, they’ve published a whole bunch of their data in the Open Contracting Data Standard quite recently so that’s been a really fantastic initiative we’ve seen.

 

Warren: Equally, Mexico are very forward in terms of their embracing Open Contracting Data Standard.

 

Sarah: That’s quite a lot.

 

Warren: Yes, so this is I think what’s exciting, it’s not only understanding the opportunities for what we can do together in a country, it’s what we can learn from other countries where they’ve perhaps been a step or two ahead of the UK.

Chantal: An example in South Africa is that they have a central supplier database, which was developed quite a few years ago, but is actually a really good example of how having data in one place is actually incredibly powerful. Different ministries are essentially able to draw from that to be able to sense check the suppliers that are bidding for their procurements so that’s been a very impressive piece of work we’ve seen.

 

Sarah: In your Indonesian example you touched on leadership, how much of your work is around leadership and culture?

 

Warren: I think that’s absolutely integral to all of it. We have been identifying who are our key stakeholders to lead and sponsor, but also how do we ensure that when we’re working together that they have that vision and the direction and they’re able to bring their teams along with them? There was an article published I think just last week actually in GovInsider talking about the CIO for Malaysia, and she’s fantastic, she’s visited GDS at least once, I think a couple of times, and so when we were presenting to her actually the tables turned quite quickly and she was basically presenting to us about how they’re using GDS standards and approaches as their benchmark for how to deliver their transformation. It makes for a very engaging and compelling conversation when the leaders within the countries are basically saying we want to align around these kinds of principles and practices which then means that we’ve got a really solid foundation for a good conversation and delivery.

 

Sarah: Is it possible to identify any quick wins against corruption? Is it a case of just making contracts really, really simple and then you can, you know, that’s the first step in winning the battle?

 

Chantal: I like that making contracts simple as a quick win, because contracts are certainly a very difficult challenge I think generally in the world of procurement. I think there isn’t really a quick win in tackling something as systemic as corruption, but I think there is something around starting small and choosing a very specific area in a location, in a sub-national government for example, and trying to build that out. Showing how that works, and also building the buy-in of stakeholders across the board that this approach can work. I think it’s not really about quick wins, more about choosing – starting small, testing it out, iterating it and growing it in the long term.

 

Warren: I think that relates also to your question around culture, because the ingrained systemic issues of corruption can often be quite an overwhelming thing to tackle, by demonstrating, as Chantal says, that it is possible to take a different approach by starting small, demonstrating a success, building trust and building confidence and bringing people along with you on that journey and then scaling from there and I think it’s hugely satisfying when you can see the delight in a stakeholder or the users, to see, “Oh my goodness, change is possible,” and people are really looking for that change. So, yes, it’s that approach of incremental and iterative and then scaling from there I think is absolutely key.

 

Sarah:The Global Digital Marketplace is a partnership between GDS and the Foreign Office, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who does what?

 

Warren: GDS is responsible for the delivery of the programme. FCO, they’re responsible for a broader overarching programme which is called the ‘Global Anti-corruption Programme’. That contains a number of activities of which the Global Digital Marketplace Programme is one. They’re managing quite a diverse portfolio of activities that involve a number of other government departments, some multilateral organisations like the OECD and the UN are involved as well. Our focus and our responsibility is on delivering against the objections that we’ve set which will help to achieve the more broader objectives of the FCO’s Global Anti-corruption Programme.

 

Sarah: Will we continue to engage with suppliers going forward, and if so how?

 

Warren: Absolutely. In exactly the same way as we have done in the UK, the supply chain is an absolutely critical element for our transformation. We would mirror that approach in our engagements, particularly as we move beyond discovery and transition  into alpha we will be reengaging with our supply chain partners in the UK to share the opportunities for how they could work with us to support Global Digital Marketplace delivery over the next 12 to 18 months.

 

Sarah: What will be keeping you busy in the short term?

 

Chantal: What’s keeping us busy is the trips to our partner countries because we’re, as I mentioned earlier, going there to present what we think might be good activities for the next stage and discussing and shaping that with them, so over the next two, three months we’re going to go over different parts of the team, but I think it’s that coordination of who’s going out when that’s currently keeping us busy, and then actually being in country and engaging and running workshops, presenting our findings, that’s really what’s going to be the next, yes, the next phase.

 

Warren: Yes, and that’s not without its complexity because we are engaging with a broad spectrum of stakeholders, the decision makers in the country, the people that we want to partner with in order to support our delivery, and that includes domestic supply chain in country as well as civil society organisations.Trying to line up the right people to gain their buy-in and their support for our plan going forward is absolutely critical. We have to be respectful of their availability so, yes, that’s going to be a diary challenge for us all.

 

Sarah: So you’ve been here since nearly the beginning of GDS’ creation, could you have imagined that the Digital Marketplace would be global?

 

Warren: No, certainly not at the beginning. I think it goes back to – it absolutely goes back to Chantal’s point of the importance and the power of starting small, iterating and then scaling those approaches, which is effectively what we’ve – what we’re doing now, and the fact that the digital marketplace is now being seen by the Crown Commercial Service as a key enabler for their transformation I think is testament to the fact that the successes of what we’ve seen through the Digital Marketplace so far have been recognised, and now we can build upon those things from a domestic UK perspective, and equally the same goes for overseas with the Global Digital Marketplace programme. Yes, it certainly wasn’t the anticipation from day one but nice to see that evolution, yeah.

 

Sarah: Can you tell me about the makeup of the Global Digital Marketplace team, who have you got in there?

 

Chantal: So the Global Digital Marketplace team is growing right now, so we’ve been doing a whole bunch of hiring in the last couple of months and are still in the process of doing that. I’ll talk about what our finished team will look like, but essentially so we’re going to have a product and delivery duo looking after a region, so three, we’ve got three regions, and then we’ve got subject matter expertise on digital and data and technology skills and capabilities, commercial and commissioning, as well as-

 

Warren: Standards assurance.

 

Chantal: Standards and assurance. Then we’ve got also, in our different partner countries, we’ve got delivery support in each of the Embassies or High Commissions who are supporting the delivery on the ground

 

Warren: So that shape is suited to our activity over the next kind of 12, 18 months, isn’t it? We would naturally look to shape and reshape the team if we need to, but certainly the roles that you’ve articulated, Chantal, those are our core civil servant delivery focused roles that we’ve been putting in place.

 

Chantal: Yes, and I would also add to that. We’ve been supported by different teams in GDS as well, so the standards and assurance team have supported us on our discovery as well as the digital data and technology capabilities team. They’ve been crucial at shaping what our discoveries were like and the kinds of things we were investigating, and some of which have – some of who have also joined us on our discovery trips.

 

Sarah: Where can people find out more about your work?

 

Warren: The GDS blog. Yes, certainly the GDS social media channels. We would like to be regularly talking about the work that we’re doing, being open about the work, and once we’ve had an opportunity to share discovery, insights and propositions with our stakeholders in country we’d like to be able to talk about that openly as well, so keep your eye out for that.

 

Sarah: Excellent. Well thank you so much for joining me on the GDS podcast, it’s been a pleasure to learn more about the work that you’re doing

 

Warren: Thank you for having us.

 

Chantal: Thank you.

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #8 - An interview with GDS Director General Kevin Cunnington

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #8 - An interview with GDS Director General Kevin Cunnington

April 30, 2019

In the latest episode of the Government Digital Service Podcast, we speak to GDS Director General Kevin Cunnington about his time at the organisation and his career so far.

A full transcript of the episode follows:

Angus Montgomery:

So welcome to the latest episode of the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Angus Montgomery, I’m a senior writer at GDS.

For this episode I’m in the slightly unusual position of interviewing my boss, or the boss of the organisation I work for. It’s GDS Director General Kevin Cunnington. Kevin, thank you very much for joining us on this podcast.

Kevin Cunnington:

Thank you for inviting me Angus.

Angus Montgomery:

So Kevin, I’d like to talk to you today about your time in GDS. So you’ve been here for, getting on for three years I think, and your priorities for GDS as we enter the new financial year and what’s coming up over the next year.

But before we get onto all of that, I’d like to talk to you a bit about your time before GDS and before government, because you’ve been a technologist, or involved in digital and technology for your entire career, and you’ve got quite a storied career before you joined GDS.

 

I think first of all, as I understand, you studied computer science and you have a master’s in artificial intelligence, so what first led you to that subject matter, to wanting to study technology and then develop a career in it?

Kevin Cunnington:

So I went to a boys grammar school, well rather dare I say, a stuffy traditional boys grammar school, where you really had a choice of doing the arts or the sciences, so I did the sciences - maths, physics, chemistry and luckily, a bit on the side, general studies.

And I was always fascinated in two areas beyond that, which were computer science and astrophysics. And oddly, at the time, both were equally as bonkers because I had never seen a computer, none of us had. No boy from my school had ever gone on to study computer science, so when I decided that was what I was going to do, I was the first boy ever from my school to study computer science, having never seen a computer [0.01.58].

Angus Montgomery:

If, at the risk of asking a very personal question, and you can answer in general time, what sort of general time are we talking about?

Kevin Cunnington:

1979.

Angus Montgomery:

Right. Oh wow.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yes, I went ‘79 - ‘82.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah, yeah.

Kevin Cunnington:

So if you’re familiar with the history of computer science, we’d just about invented the BBC Micro in ‘79. But the first real personal computer, the IBM XT80, XT, came out in ‘81. So you know, nobody had ever seen a personal computer.

They existed only as mainframes really in large regional centres that none of us had ever seen. So taking a punt, and doing a degree based on something I’d never seen before, seemed like quite an odd option really. But it’s worked out ok I’d have to say.

Angus Montgomery:

And your master’s as well, I presume at the same...at this sort of time, artificial intelligence was in the very early stages of our understanding. What was it that drew you to that and what was the kind of, what was going on in artificial intelligence then and is it still relevant to what we’re talking about today?

Kevin Cunnington:

No, it was very different then. So you’re right to say, there was very little work in A.I. back in ‘83 when I did my second degree. And we just had this report called the Lighthill report which said, largely it was rubbish and it’ll never work.

So my timing wasn’t perfect but my interest in A.I and computing has always been with the effect on people really and how it kind of works, not necessarily the programming, but the effect of computing - although I do love programming as well. But it was different then, ‘cause we actually used to programme A.I systems by hand.

Angus Montgomery:

Wow.

Kevin Cunnington:

In these really obscure languages like Prolog and Lisp, which are based on quite complicated mathematical constructs oddly enough, the last thing you’d expect to be quite natural. And so I spent a whole raft of my master’s degree programming Prolog and Lisp on things like chess playing. My thesis was around, kind of flexible airport selection. So I built this system that learnt that if you couldn’t go to that airport which was your favourite, then you’d most likely pick the next one, and therefore we could offer that as a potential option in the first place.

Angus Montgomery:

Oh wow.

Kevin Cunnington:

So yeah, quite ahead of its time really.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah, yeah. And you mentioned, I mean obviously you were involved in writing programming back then, is that something you still do today when you have time or are still involved in?

Kevin Cunnington:

No, because when I started out in programming in the traditional languages like Pascal and C, and I actually come past programming Codebar oddly enough, but my passion was always Prolog and Lisp, and since they’re no longer really around, I just, you know, wouldn’t have the skill set to programme in Java or Ruby nowadays, so I’ve not done any for years really

Angus Montgomery:

But it’s still there, still there, the skills I’m sure.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, I think I’d like to go back to it when I retire kind of thing.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah, go back to early ‘80s artificial intelligence. And then, so after studying you worked for PWC [Pricewaterhouse Coopers], and developed, or pioneered their use of Agile methodology.

Can you tell me a bit more about sort of, again, what Agile methodology was like, and presumably this was sort of mid to late ‘80s, and what was Agile like back then and how does that relate to what we’re doing now and how we use Agile?

Kevin Cunnington:

So I think the kind of crystallising example is I got sent to this regional city in England to help a large insurer try to automate the process of life insurance, underwriting for life insurance. And people had had a go at that in the past and failed miserably because it’s quite complicated. And I was the first person to try it using A.I techniques and it worked, first time in the world it ever worked, and we came out with a programme that could underwrite life insurance quite comprehensively.

Angus Montgomery:

Wow.

Kevin Cunnington:

And it was really...so A.I was like user researchers now.

Angus Montgomery:

Right, yeah yeah.

Kevin Cunnington:

You used to sit down with people, we used to actually video the experts doing their job and then we used to interactively programme up what they’d told us and we iterated that over time, so very much like Agile is today, lots of user research, lots of interaction, lots of feedback, lots of intelligent challenge.

And then in, I think it was ‘92, PWC shipped me off to their, what they called, their technology centre in California in Menlo Park, to write down everything I’d learnt about doing A.I using Agile. And this I duly did, it took me six months to deposit the whole contents of my mind onto a book, which was actually quite big, but that then became PWC’s global methodology for developing expert systems, A.I systems, using Agile.

And it was broadly what you’d expect to see today. You know we said prototypes are important, you need to understand the scope of what you’re doing, you need to test and learn, you need to do user research and it’s all not changed very much if we’re being brutally honest over the, what’s that, 25 years.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah, well it works, so yeah, why change it? And your background, so as well as working at PWC, you worked for various other sort of large organisations, so Vodafone, Goldman Sachs.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yes.

Angus Montgomery:

And it covers, your background kind of covers large organisations as well as startups and entrepreneurial work, so you’ve got a, quite a varied kind of work history before you came to the public sector. How do you use that experience in your current role in government and kind of, what are the similarities and differences between that and what you do know?

Kevin Cunnington:

So I think you know, my kind of, original company was PWC, which was a management consultancy. And apparently today, PWC run the best kind of, fast track scheme in the UK, and they probably in fairness to them, did then. And it was really helpful because as a scientist, my ability to write and present and critique, you know, was that of a scientist. So I was taught how to present, I was taught how to write, I was told how to do analysis and that, it turned out to be a really great start in life. And I spent that, broadly best part of a decade, doing A.I systems.

And as people know, in the ‘90s when greed was good and lunch was for wimps, I sold out and went to work for Goldman Sachs in New York running their trading systems. Which when you say it that way sounds slightly mad but all trading systems are written using Agile. So the fact that I knew how to do Agile at scale and quite quickly and quite well, turned out to be quite a big advantage for them and for me.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah definitely.

Kevin Cunnington:

And then as you say, I had a spell as an entrepreneur. Having been a successful entrepreneur originally, I made quite a bit of money and most people know I lost 13 million quid on a venture, which I do say to people, if you meet my wife, please don’t mention it ‘cause she has stopped mentioning it now.

But at the time obviously it was quite traumatic. And then I went back to work for Vodafone as their Global Head of Digital before joining the Civil Service about five years ago now.

Angus Montgomery:

So you joined, so your first role in the Civil Service was with DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] as Director General of Business Transformation, that’s correct I think.

Kevin Cunnington:

It was.

Angus Montgomery:

Can you tell me a bit more about that role and what you were responsible for and what you were doing?

Kevin Cunnington:

So back in the day it was called the Director General for Digital Transformation and my job was really twofold. The overarching part of the job was, how to transform DWP to be fit for digital and you know, as we know, we did that via the Academies, and all the rich picture work that we did in creating a vision. But the really tangible part of my work was helping to recruit, train the digital teams for the big programmes like Universal Credit back in the day. And that’s broadly what I spent the first two and a half years of my Civil Service life doing.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah, so it’s kind of, bringing people in and building capability. Those, those two things across the department.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, I’ll tell you, the big thing we did was bring in the Academies. Which was not a new idea, it was an idea that we’d used in Vodafone. But in Vodafone, we’d used it to train largely graduates in digital, because even Vodafone couldn’t get ahold of enough graduates.

In the Civil Service when we first tried it, we blatantly took the idea and reimplemented it and I wasn’t sure whether it would work, and this would be one of the big positives and learnings for me that, we’d tried it on graduates, in the Civil Service we were trying it on older people like myself, and it was at all clear to me that older people would respond to being re-trained in digital. But the reality was they loved it because it gave them a whole new lease of life, it made them feel really modern and updated, and they really warmed to it.

And it’s been, some of the big successes, we’ve had people put off their retirement because having been re-trained, they enjoyed it so much, they want to carry on working. Which was, you know, you’d never believe that was true but they’ve been a massive success. We’ve trained 10,000 people now in the Academies over the five years.

Angus Montgomery:

Brilliant. And when they first started five years ago, was it in DWP?

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, 24 Feb 2014.

Angus Montgomery:

Even got the date.

Kevin Cunnington:

It’s my birthday Angus, so it’s hard to forget.

Angus Montgomery:

Oh right, wow. Very fortuitous. And so that, and again the Academy, the idea of that is upskilling people with potentially no digital capability, or no digital knowledge whatsoever and kind of giving them the skills and potential for a new career.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah exactly. When I first joined DWP, we were kind of in that twilight of 2013 in the Civil Service. And I was told DWP, when I think about this now and I was reminiscing the other day, I must have been incredibly controversial because DWP told me they got 300 experts in digital. And after the first few days, I hadn’t met one so I was beginning to get a bit suspicious, so I wrote down as a word cloud, the 50 terms you really need to understand to understand digital and particularly if you like, the GDS version with discovery, alpha and beta. And challenged the whole of the organisation if someone could get 50 like I could, then I would absolutely consider them an expert, and that’s fair enough. And a lot of people came forward and the highest score was 20.

Angus Montgomery:

Oh really? Wow.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah. And you realise actually, we probably are kidding ourselves relative to industry. We’re not where we think we need to be. And at that point, that’s how we kind of came to the academy system. For me, it was always better to retrain our folk even if that was a gamble in the way we described earlier than it was to kind of, you know, put them to one side and hire a whole set of new people who aren’t part of the Civil Service culture. But, and this again is a really true story. When we first trained people, and then put them back into their departments and their host building, people used to say to them, ‘we don’t do it like that around here Kevin’.

So in the end I got this entire building, bit like we are here today, in Leeds. And we commondered the first floor, the ground floor, and we used that to train people in the Academy. Then we commandeered the next two floors for people to go off and do digital programmes. So they were entirely sequestrated from the rest of the business because, if they were put in the business, we had this terrific organ rejection.

And you think about that now, and you think that must have been incredibly controversial that I set up a building to incubate digital.

Angus Montgomery:

To develop this new way of thinking.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, yeah but it’s all true and you know I, again I was reminiscing the other day, I even stopped people who weren’t qualified from going through the Academy from doing digital for a while.

Angus Montgomery:

Oh wow.

Kevin Cunnington:

Because we had a number of people who thought they knew, you know ‘cause of the 300 expert thing again, thought they knew what they were doing and they didn’t, so I stopped them and made them get completely trained in the Academy, then I let them crack on.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah. And were you seeing, so when people were being trained in the Academy and then going back into DWP and sort of, after this sequestering, were you seeing then the change in the department or the capability building?

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, I think it took, so in DWP over the first 3 years, I think we trained 5,000 people. Because, at peak, we were training 3000 people a year. And it was only through you know, mass re-education if you like, or mass education, that we got to a point where, you know these people who knew about digital weren’t strange folk anymore. They were more you know, the core fabric of the business.

And it still is a fact that 80% of the people who were trained in the Academies are really around awareness of digital, not practitioners for digital, only about ⅕ of the people go on to be practitioners. But the majority of the effort was just stopping people from being worried about it or thinking it was alien or thinking it was different. And eventually critical mass won and we thought digital was part of our DNA, and if you went into DWP today, you’d never consider doing something that wasn’t digital, you would genuinely be digital by default.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah. So it was a real culture shift.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, exactly.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah, yeah. That’s great. And obviously while you were at DWP, GDS had been around for 2 or 3 years beforehand. What was your kind of relationship with GDS and how were you working with them when you were at DWP?

Kevin Cunnington:

So, GDS invented a construct which, I still think to this day is a really good idea, called Digital Leaders. And it was essentially getting all the heads of digital together on a monthly basis, chaired by GDS. And I was part of that. So I was always part of the kind of family. DWP did have, occasionally, some GDS folk working with us on some of the programmes but relatively small numbers.

I think it wasn’t until about 2015, that the chair of the Digital Leaders changed to be Chris Ferguson and myself. We completely changed the dynamic to say it wasn’t just about the centre but the centre in partnership with a big department, and from there I had a lot more engagement with GDS. Obviously prior to arriving here in GDS.

Angus Montgomery:

I think it was August/September 2016 when you joined.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, I think it was. Yeah.

Angus Montgomery:

You joined as the first Director General of GDS, and tell me about when you joined, what were your sort of, first impressions. I mean obviously you knew the organisation well, you’d been working very closely with it but actually sort of, coming in the door and sort of, becoming part of GDS, what were your impressions of it?

Kevin Cunnington:

Oh it was definitely quite different to DWP, even though, I mean honestly we had absolutely mimicked GDS in DWP in our digital centres by putting up the bunting...you know, really ruthlessly just stealing all the good ideas. But GDS was just fundamentally, purely digital and it was, yeah, incredibly different. It was much more challenging, people were much more open, it wasn’t anything like so hierarchical and it was still kind of like, a big startup back in ‘16 [2016]. And like, you know where it is now in ‘19 [2019] where it feels more like an enterprise.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah yeah yeah.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, it was way different and you know the statistic today in GDS, is 47% of us are in the age bracket of 30-40.

Angus Montgomery:

Oh wow.

Kevin Cunnington:

So that’s quite a lot different from I guess, the general profile of the Civil Service.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah.

Kevin Cunninton:

And particularly DWP. So you really did notice it had much more, yeah, much more youth on its side immediately when you walked in the door.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah. And what, and when you joined what were your first priorities for, well yourself and for GDS?

Kevin Cunnington:

Oh I think they’ve honestly remained the same. And it’s funny because I had my equivalent from Australia here today to chat, and I was saying, the two bits of advice I always consistently give digital organisations, digital countries, starting out are one, build capability, get the academies sorted at scale. Two, don’t start building applications until you’ve got your identity strategy sorted out.

Angus Montgomery:

Right.

Kevin Cunnington:

Because if you don’t get your identity strategy first and foremost ahead of, then you find yourself in the kind of position we are which is, playing catchup on identity.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah.

Kevin Cunnington:

And there the two, they’ve always been my two priorities here at GDS.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah.

Kevin Cunnington:

Support the Verify programme, build out the Academies.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah. Brilliant. And what were you, when you joined, obviously you said it was very very different from DWP, what were the differences in the sense of like, moving from a department to the centre and what you could do here and what you couldn’t do from the centre that you could do in departments?

Kevin Cunnington:

I think the main thing is that I always felt in DWP, notwithstanding the fact that I was running a bigger group probably two or three times the size of GDS, I wasn’t quite as busy if that makes sense. I had more time to think about the strategy. And famously we used to have these Friday morning breakfast meetings with the ‘brain trust’, quotes around that, where we just used to think about what DWP could look like in 2020, 2025, 2030.

And I think it’s taken you know, as you say, nearly the two and a half, three years I’ve been here to get to a point where I think I've now got the right structures and management team in place, that I’m actually beginning to free up to think about what is our 2030 vision, what is the future of A.I in the workplace and yeah, it’s taken quite, it’s taken much longer than I thought it would to get to that point where I’ve got that same quality of thinking time that I had in the departments.

Kevin Cunnington:

Which is just an interesting observation, really.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah, that is interesting. And well in what other ways as well, I mean you obviously, in that respect GDS has changed in that you kind of, now have that space to think about that stuff. What other ways do you feel that GDS has grown and developed so far in your time here?

Kevin Cunnington:

Well I think the two obvious things you’d highlight is, it’s much bigger. It’s 860 people today, and I think it was about 400 when I joined, it’s of that order, so it’s much bigger.

The new building here in Aldgate is just brilliant. I think it’s made a massive change of quality of life for all of us here in GDS. But I think there’s some other things as well. Acquiring the Academies gave us a national footprint for the first time.

Angus Montgomery:

So we have Academies, sorry, in Leeds and..

Kevin Cunnington:

Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle. Hopefully I keep saying Bristol outloud, for the good people of Bristol to hear me, so hopefully that’ll come true at some point.

And I think the other thing that’s changed is we’ve now got the Introvert Network and of course, we’ve got the BAME [Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic] Network, which didn’t exist back then, so I think we are you know, continuing to embrace diversity and inclusion here in GDS.

Angus Montgomery:

And that’s a very obvious thing that diversity and inclusion is, it’s something that we talk about a lot in this organisation, and rightly so, but I think I’ve not worked in organisations like this where it’s so obvious that the organisation cares about that, and I think that that’s really important.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, I’m the same. I think it’s integral to its DNA.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah, yeah.

Kevin Cunnington:

And you wonder, I mean it’s one thing to take great pride in around GDS. I mean it’s not, I didn’t start it but nevertheless I feel the real responsibility of making sure we continue to be diverse and inclusive going forward.

Angus Montgomery:

Definitely. And looking forward, because we’re recording this in April and we’re moving onto a new financial year.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah.

Angus Montgomery:

So there’s a lot of work going on in GDS and around government as a whole as people prepare for it and people think about, not just the year ahead but as you’ve mentioned, the 10 or 20 years ahead and what we could do.

So first of all, could you tell me a little bit about what your priorities are for the next year?

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah so in terms of priorities, I generally try and describe GDS you know, through the lens of history where, in 2012 we started out by digital by default, which was all just about building confidence that as a Civil Service we could insource some of these things and do them.

The next phase, 2015 onwards, I would say is building capability. That the integration of the Academies, the GAAP platforms, all the things we’ve done to scale the business.

And then I’d say over the last 12-18 months, we’ve talked more about transformation, collaboration and innovation really. That’s the kind of slogans we batted off for Sprint last year and so with that in mind, and we’ve got some big things landing in the very short term, we’ve got the A.I review that we’ve been doing on how A.I could be used in the workforce, that we’ve done in conjunction with DCMS, landing over the next few months. We’ve got the minister’s review on innovation and how that could land, although that report is becoming much broader than innovation. It’s really kind of front-running what I think we’ll end up saying as part of SR19, or spending review 19.

Angus Montgomery:

Brilliant. Yeah.

Kevin Cunnington:

And then we’ve got quite a big set of tours really. So we’ve got all the new Sprint conferences in the devolved nations, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, which of course we’ve never done before. We’re doing a special in Leeds and then of course, we’re heading home to London in September. And then on the back of that, we’ve got, we’re attending every Civil Service Live doing keynote presentations, and we’re doing the Let’s Talk About Race workshops as well.

Angus Montgomery:

Yes, which is towards the end of the month I think, isn’t it? Yeah.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yes exactly. And then towards the end of the month, we’ve actually got Breaking Down Barriers. Which is our functional view of how we promote BAME people into the SCS [Senior Civil Service] within digital.

Angus Montgomery:

Into Senior Civil Service.

Yeah. Wow. So a lot coming up.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yes.

Angus Montgomery:

A lot touring and a lot of talking. And yeah, a busy summer ahead. And as we kind of, as you think about your priorities, in your opinion, what, can you summarise what GDS is here to do and how that role is developing and how it will develop, I suppose over the coming years?

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah so you know, we’ve tried to highlight the core values of GDS by putting them into pithy slogans really. ‘Show what good looks like’, and GDS has always been great at showing what good looks like from, right from the early days of user research right through to now. We show what good looks like.

Two, slightly new but ‘do the hardest things’. So my view is, GDS should be prototyping things today that departments will want to explore in 2 years time. Good example of that would be voice activation on GOV.UK.

Third value is around reflecting the society we serve. We talked a lot about diversity but we also need to encourage SMEs (small-to-medium enterprises) across the UK to work with us. We also need, as GDS, to have a more regional footprint.

And then the fourth value we talk about is helping government transform. And that for me, is the one I want to tweak going forward. I think our role is not to help but to lead.

Angus Montgomery:

Ok.

Kevin Cunnington;

And just be more proactive about, this is what good in the space of biometrics, or this is what good in the space of voice activation, looks like. And begin to work more proactively with departments to lay out that roundmap that we asked them to follow. Yeah just be much more proactive in the fourth category.

Angus Montgomery:

Ok. That’s interesting. So is that proactive in the sense of sort of, actively working with these projects or doing these things as exemplars almost?

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah exactly, exactly like that Angus. Working with some departments on exemplars, setting the standards and then, really, encouraging, cajoling even, departments to say well, now we’ve figured out how to do voice activation of services, why wouldn’t you make all your major services voice ‘activationable’ by 2027.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah.

Kevin Cunnington:

That kind of thing. I think the other big shift is the local digital declaration. Where we’re obviously working much more closer nowadays with local authorities, which I think is a really good thing for the UK because citizens interact far more frequently with local authorities than they do obviously, central government.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah. That’s really interesting. And finally, because we’re getting, we’re running towards the end of this episode, just finish with a couple of well, I suppose, quick fire-ish questions. First all, what’s the most challenging part of your job?

Kevin Cunnington:

Oh quick fire? I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t say keeping your eye on the ball really. There’s a lot going on, and actually just keeping as focused on the core business as well as planning for EU Exit, is definitely the most difficult part of it.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah. Keeping all, yeah...keeping in charge of everything. What’s the most enjoyable part?

Kevin Cunnington:

Well this will come as an irony ‘cause most people know I’m quite, well I am an introvert, that’s why I took up computer science but, I love the touring if I’m honest.

Angus Montgomery:

You’ve got a lot of it coming up so.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah exactly. You know, the fact that we’re going on tour with as we said, Sprint, Civil Service Live, Breaking Down Barriers. I think people also know that when I was in Vodafone, for 3 and a half years, I didn’t spend a single week in the country, in this country.

Angus Montgomery:

Wow.

Kevin Cunnington:

I was perpetually as the Global Head somewhere else, looking at stuff in the Czech Republic or Italy. And I feel you know, in the back half of this year, I’d like to do more support our international directorate, Chris Ferguson’s directorate in flying the flag a little for Britain overseas.

Angus Montgomery:

‘Cause there’s a lot of work going on there.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, and showing you know, why we have done some of the things we’ve done. And obviously learning from others as we do that.

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah.

Kevin Cunnington:

And that, that would make me very happy.

Angus Montgomery:

Brilliant, yeah. And final question, what’s your, what are you most proud of from your time at GDS so far?

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, there’s, there’s a huge list you know, from GAAP, GOV Wifi, all the work we’ve done on GOV.UK for EU Exit, which I think has been brilliant. The work we’ve started on innovation, the innovation survey, the innovation landscape, the new pipeline process, local digital declarations, the publication of the 7 Lenses book. Being on top of EU Exit, the Academies, the Emerging Tech Development programme, the Global Digital Marketplace. I mean it’s just..

Angus Montgomery:

The list goes on.

Kevin Cunnington:

Yeah, yeah, you could be doing that for quite a while couldn’t you?

Angus Montgomery:

So thank you again to Kevin for joining us, and thank you for listening to this episode of the Government Digital Service podcast. I really hope that you enjoyed it. If you want to listen to future episodes or in fact, if you want to listen to the episodes that we’ve done so far, please do go to wherever it is that you download your podcasts episodes from, so Spotify, Apple Music, all those places. You’ll find us there, so hit subscribe and we hope you enjoy what we do in the future. And thank you again and goodbye.

Kevin Cunnington:

Thank you Angus.

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #7 - How has digital changed public-sector organisations?

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #7 - How has digital changed public-sector organisations?

March 28, 2019

In the latest episode of the Government Digital Service podcast, we speak to people from across the public sector about how digital has affected their lives, their careers and the organisations they work for.

Those who contributed to this episode are:

  • Kevin Cunnington, Director General of the Government Digital Service
  • Sally Meecham, Head of Digital Data and Transformation for UK Research and Innovation
  • Caron Alexander, Director of Digital Shared Services for Northern Ireland’s Department of Finance
  • Matthew Cain, Head of Digital and Data from the London Borough of Hackney
  • Caren Fullerton, Chief Digital Officer for the Welsh Government

A full transcript of the episode follows:

Angus Montgomery:

Hello, and welcome to the latest episode of the Government Digital Service Podcast. My name is Angus Montgomery, and I’m a senior writer at GDS.

We’re recording this podcast in March 2019, and a few days ago, on the 12th March, it was the 30th anniversary of Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal for linking information across different computers , which was the proposal that he wrote that would eventually become the thing that we now know as the World Wide Web.

And this anniversary got us thinking, like lots of other people I suspect, about how much the World Wide Web has changed the way that we do things, the way that we work, and our lives. And in particular for those of us working in the public sector, how much it has changed public services and the way that governments and other public sector organisations, can deliver services and can improve the lives of the people using those services.

So for this episode what we wanted to do was, we wanted to hear the views of people across public sector digital roles, not just in central government but in local authorities, in devolved administrations. And we wanted to hear from them about how digital has changed the way that they work and what it means for them, and the advantages and the changes that it’s brought to their roles.

So we put out a call for contributions from people in senior digital roles and lots of people were kind enough to respond and what we did was, we emailed a bunch of questions out and people responded by sending audio clips of their thoughts. So we’ve got a whole load of audio clips, a load of great answers and we’re now going to use those audio clips to create this episode of the GDS podcast, so rather than hearing from just one person, you’re going to hear from lots and lots of different people and lots of different viewpoints.

So first of all, thank you very much to all of those people who contributed to this episode. In this episode, you’re going to hear from Kevin Cunnington, who is the Director General of the Government Digital Service. You’re going to hear from Sally Meecham, who is Head of Digital, Data and Transformation for UK Research and Innovation. You’re going to hear from Matthew Cain, who is Head of Digital and Data for London Borough of Hackney.

And you’re also going to hear from two people working at devolved administrations, and you’re going to hear a lot more from them in the future, because we’re working with...GDS is working with devolved administrations to run a series of Sprint events this year. So we’re going to be talking about those in the episode as well, so we’re running Sprint events all across the UK in partnership with the Scottish government, the Welsh government, the government of Northern Ireland and Leeds city council. And in this episode, you’re going to hear from two of our partners, who are working on those Sprint events. You’re going to hear from Caron Alexander, who is Director of Digital Shared Services for Northern Ireland’s Department of Finance, and you’re going to hear from Caren Fullerton, who is Chief Digital Officer for the Welsh Government .

So that’s my very long intro over. The TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) version of that is, you’re going to hear from lots of different people, lots of different sound clips, and it’s going to be a lot of fun and it’s going to work seamlessly, I hope.

So let’s get down to it. So the first question that we wanted to find out was, why people wanted to work in digital, what excited them about it and what it’s meant for their careers. For lots of people, digital has always been a part of their working lives, so this was the case for Kevin Cunnington and this is what he said to us.

[Audio starts]

‘My bachelors degree is Computer Science, my masters degree, as people know, is in A.I. In 1992, this is a trip down memory lane, I wrote PWC’s global methodology of how to develop A.I systems using Agile. So I’ve always been a digital person. I spent most of my life in blue chip corporates really, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), Goldman Sachs, Vodafone, but I had a spell in the middle as an entrepreneur with mixed success if I’m honest. We built one company and sold it for lots of millions of pounds, and then I build another one which failed to make any money on them, and lost rather a lot of money. And I do say this to people, if you ever get to meet my wife, please don’t mention it, because she has forgiven me now but she wasn’t very happy about it at the time’.

Angus Montgomery:

And for some people, digital represented a new opportunity in their careers, it represented an opportunity to do something that they might not have imagined they were going to end up doing. This is Sally Meecham who’s got a really interesting story about how she ended up in a digital world.

[Audio starts]

‘I was a set designer, and I attended an internet conference about twenty years ago. And was just immediately enthralled and excited by the opportunities, the reach, the ability to connect, to have your own voice, be who you want to be with digital. That day I had an idea for a website, and I hadn’t really been using the internet hardly at all, so was quite surprised when this idea popped into my head for a peer-to-peer travel review website. And literally within the next few days, I’d given up my job, I met some people to set up a business and we set up a website. And within four months, I was an internet guru, which is obviously silly, but there weren’t that many people doing it at the time, so I’ll take that. And I still love digital, I think it’s phenomenal and we just need to keep working to make sure that it is fair’.

Angus Montgomery:

Sally Meecham there, from set designer to internet guru in just four months. So a common thread that came through in a lot of responses, and something we’ve obviously explored lots in this podcast previously, is the opportunity that digital provides to improve public services, and to improve the way that government and other organisations can serve people. So here’s Matthew Cain on that theme.

[audio starts]

‘In Hackney council, digital has changed our expectations of what we can do with technology and data to meet residents’ raised expectations. We’re using user centered design Agile approaches in order to redesign services so good that people prefer to use them.’

Angus Montgomery:

Shout out for GDS there as well which is great to hear. Caron Alexander had a similar, or a response on a similar theme, and also talks about the opportunity for digital to impact the way that government and [other local] other public sector organisations can deliver front line services to people. Here’s what she had to say.

[audio starts]

‘Working in digital transformation provides great opportunities to work closely with service owners and users, and really understand the needs. It’s very rewarding to work collaboratively, designing services that are easy to use, services that are accessible when and where you want to use them, and using a device of your choice.’

Angus Montgomery:

And Caren Fullerton explains how digital has changed her career as a civil servant and how that’s developed over the time she’s worked in the Welsh government and the Civil Service.

[audio starts]
‘Working in a digital role gives me a really great opportunity to focus on something which I’ve always really enjoyed in my career in the Civil Service, which is to look in a fresh, or even a critical way sometimes, at the way in which we work. My first job in the Civil Service was as an analyst, and every year we used to look at our data collection exercise, look at how we could redo the form, improve our IT system, change the way we presented the results. And so a focus very much on learning and continuing to improve and, for me, the opportunities offered by my current role are to look at everything we do, whether it’s a corporate system or whether it’s a system that provides a service to the population, look at it in a way that means we never have to stand still, and we’re always looking for ways to change and improve’,

Angus Montgomery:

So it’s great obviously, to hear very personal responses about how digital has affected people’s working lives, and what it’s meant for them on a personal level [0.08.00].
As I mentioned at the start of the podcast, all the people that we spoke to, have very senior digital roles in public sector organisations. So we wanted to kind of go beyond the personal viewpoints, and find out also how, what digital has meant, not just for these people but for the organisations that they work for and lead, and what it’s helped those organisations do.

And here’s Matthew Cain again. He’s talking about how digital really helps Hackney council meet the needs of its users, of the people who live in the borough of Hackney.

[audio starts]

‘I wanted to work in digital because I was always passionate about public services and about good public policy. But I always wanted to be able to see how that happened on the ground. So the opportunity to come in and work for the public sector gave me a chance to harness the inspirational qualities that Francis Maude (former Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General) and Mike Bracken (co-founder of GDS), and Tom Loosemore (co-founder of GDS) had led in the Government Digital Service, and give me an amazing opportunity to put that into practice myself.’

Angus Montgomery:

And Caren Fullerton sort of continues on that theme and talks specifically, not just about services but how digital can change the way that public sector organisations can deliver the policy that drives those services as well. Here’s Caren.

[audio starts]
‘I think the biggest change for us in terms of impact of digital on the way we work, has been to transform the way in which we develop and deliver policy. So through the whole policy cycle, whether it’s the discovery phase, looking at how the world looks at how we engage with our stakeholders to look at what the case for change is, all the way through to actually delivering the policy out there in Wales. Digital tools, digital thinking, user centered thinking has actually offered a whole new way of working, which people, who work in the Welsh government, are really enthusiastic to embrace’.

Angus Montgomery:

And Kevin Cunnington who as well as being Director General of GDS, has worked in senior digital roles at the Department for Work and Pensions has, you know, quite an interesting sort of oversight of how digital has developed in central government.

He talks about how, over recent years the environment has really changed in government and the public sector, now digital ways of working and responding to user needs are business as usual in many organisations.

[audio starts]

‘When I started in DWP (Department for Work and Pensions) in 2013, there were no other digital people apart from me. There was no profession for people like me in the Civil Service. There was no academies, there was no training. When we first set up the first academies and trained people in digital, I then went back into the existing DWP workplaces, and people used to say to me, genuinely said, ‘we don’t do it like that round here thanks’. So in the end, I ended up setting up an academy in a building in Leeds, and taking over the whole building. So we used to train people on the ground floor, and then allow them to work in an Agile way on the first and second floors, because the native environment in DWP was just so alien for them, they had to be sequestered, or quarantined, in this single building in Leeds. So I say the biggest changes, when you look back, nobody ever debates now whether we should do things digitally. Digital is business as usual.’

Angus Montgomery:

‘Nobody ever debates now that we do things digitally’, which is a great point and a great position for us to be in. And Caron Alexander sort of echoes this point about how digital can change organisational culture.

[audio starts]

‘Digital transformation has really started to change the culture within the Northern Ireland Civil Service. Now we’re designing our citizen facing services around people, the people that use those services and the uptake of our online digital service has exceeded all of our expectations’.

Angus Montgomery:

And as I mentioned at the top of the podcast, this change in culture and the whole idea of how digital can drive transformation, collaboration and innovation is something we, as GDS, are going to be exploring more in the Sprint series of events that we’re going to be running this year.

And we’re running these in collaboration with devolved administrations, including Northern Ireland and Wales. And so we wanted to hear from Caron Alexander, what she’s looking forward to in Sprint Belfast, which is the event that we will be doing there shortly. And here’s what she had to say.

[audio starts]

‘I’m really looking forward to meeting new people, and hearing about digital developments across UK government. It will be great to showcase some of our local digital transformation successes, to share experiences and to discuss lessons learnt with colleagues from across the public sector.’

Angus Montgomery:

And as well as doing a Sprint in Belfast, we’re also doing a Sprint in Cardiff in collaboration with the Welsh government. And so we wanted to hear from Caren Fullerton, what she’s planning and what she’s looking forward to from this sprint event.

[audio starts]
‘What I’m most looking forward to in Sprint Cardiff is actually meeting up with people who work in the same kind of role as me elsewhere in the Civil Service, find out about what they’re doing and learn about their experiences, good and bad, and hopefully taking some of that learning and applying it to the things that we’re doing here. There’s also a great opportunity to tell people about the things that we’re doing within Welsh government, and to sing some of our own praises for once’.

Angus Montgomery:

So lots to look forward to at these Sprint events, and if you want to find out more about them, then keep your eyes peeled on the GDS blogs because we’ll be talking a lot more about them in the coming weeks.

So finally, we’ve heard a lot about kind of how digital helps organisations deliver things better and how digital can change organisational culture, and Sally Meecham sort of closes off this section by pointing out that while obviously, digital has brought huge benefits and it is becoming business as usual, or has become business as usual for large public sector organisations, we do need to be careful not to sit on our laurels, and we need to make sure that we are continuing to drive forward and talk about, and showcase the great things that digital can bring. Here’s Sally.

[audio starts]
‘For me, it’s more consistency, design standards, spend control, empowerment and transparency. We’ve only really just begun this journey, it’s a few years old, and not everyone has adopted it. But it’s critical we stay on this path, it’s critical we still have standards and openness in government’,

Angus Montgomery:

So for our final sort of subject that we wanted to hear from people about. We heard about changes that digital can bring on a personal level and changes that digital can bring to organisations, and we wanted really to drill down into the specifics, to hear, not just about kind of, you know, cultural change or transformation of services, but what are the specific things that digital and digital government, and digital public services allow people to do that they couldn’t have done before. So Sally Meecham has an example that will be familiar to lots of people I think, about how digital has changed an aspect of her life and probably changed the same aspect of lots of listeners’ lives as well.

[audio starts]

‘I’m going to start with banking, which used to be for me, a really horrible experience. We needed to make that we were there for their opening times, and that we were lucky if we got somebody who was helpful and the queuing, just the whole thing about it, I used to really detest. And I do my banking, my personal banking and my business banking, when I want it, on what device I want to do it on. And I think that the advancements and changes of online banking are just getting better and I just think you know, it might sound a bit boring but it really does free up time to do things a little less boring instead’.

Angus Montgomery:

So I think the banking example is a really useful and interesting one for those of us working in the digital public sector because it’s the same thing for delivering government services. So what digital is allowing people to do as Sally has said, is do things in their own, on their own devices and freeing up people’s time. So rather than you know, government and other public sector organisations absorbing people’s time through difficult services, we’re making these things easy to do so people can spend the rest of their time doing the things that they actually want to do. So I think that’s a really valuable example. Matthew Cain focuses specifically on how digital has helped him and his colleagues working lives. And again, lots of this will feel familiar to those of you who work in digital public sector organisations.

[audio starts]

‘The work we’ve done in Hackney together has included some of my absolute career highlights, whether that’s the improvement to the Hackney work service, which means that more than 40 people now have a job that they didn’t have this time last year. Our work in fostering to improve the experience of applying to be a foster carer, or our work in the housing services. Personally though, the way we use Google Drive has changed the way I collaborate with teams, with people across the organisation and outside the council. Twitter has enabled us to develop much broader networks across the sector so that we can tap into the expertise in central government and local digital agencies. And Todoist is a brilliant tool for making sure that I can communicate and work well with my own teams’.

Angus Montgomery:

So lots of good examples there about how digital has helped Matthew’s day to day life, and helped him and his team deliver those great services. And when we asked Caren Fullerton this question, she had a really interesting and quite specific example about how digital can improve service delivery for a very particular group of users. The user group is those people who use assistive technology, so things like screen readers. And here’s Caren talking about how digital has helped to deliver services for that user group.

[audio starts]

‘So we’ve always given high priority to serving their needs well. Being as flexible as possible in making a range of tools available to users of assistive technology. But the way in which we’ve integrated the service to them with our basic service provision, has not worked particularly well. So typically we would roll out some new software or new hardware, and come to the needs of that group of users, the assistive technology users, right at the end of the project when it became a problem to solve, sometimes very difficult problems, so in some cases, software that had been rolled out to 95% of the organisation couldn’t be rolled out to the final 5%. This wasn’t satisfactory, and meant we were spending an awful lot of resources on actually providing support to those users. So by transforming the way we thought about that service, we were able to reduce support resources and to actually improve service and most importantly, enable those staff to be much more productive and the simple way of doing this was to start any new project with the roll out to that particular group of users, so from about 3 years ago, we have started to do that. So new phone systems, new hardware which we’ve recently rolled out in the last year or so, moves to Windows 10, upgrades to software, we have taken the needs of assistive tech users to be the ones that we need to sort out right at the start of the project and that has meant that, the needs of our, the majority of our users are relatively straightforward to deal with in the second and third stages of the project. So what it’s given us is a slightly longer start to some of our projects because we have to deal with some of the more challenging integration issues right at the beginning, but a much softer landing towards the end of a rollout, much better service for our assistive technology users enabling them to be productive, and to receive the same service as everybody else, and has required lower levels of support from our software teams as the services have gone into regular business as usual service delivery’.

Angus Montgomery:

So Caren Fullerton there with quite a specific example of digital improving something. Caron Alexander focuses on, in her response, on the broader benefits that digital tools that can bring, that is if you build these digital tools using the right approach and embed them across organisations.

[audio starts]

‘In driving forward the Northern Ireland digital transformation programme, we used a principle of re-use when developing new digital services. This has resulted in a growing number of reusable technical components which are now in our digital toolkit. And these components are available at little or no cost for subsequent projects and also, this can substantially increase the pace of delivery.

Angus Montgomery:

And Kevin Cunnington also focuses on tools and platforms, and one platform in particular, GOV.UK Verify, which is government’s identity assurance platform. And he has an anecdote from his family, and how GOV.UK Verify has helped them.

[audio starts]

‘A good example happened recently with my wife, where my wife’s been a long time user of the Verify system, she used it to check her state pension. The other part of her pension is with the NHS, because she was an NHS worker. And that’s always been problematic because historically, it’s one of these systems that’s got a you know, a cryptic username and an even more cryptic password methodology, so she’d never remember it. And everytime she goes to check it, she has to ring them up and get them to tell her da da da. But good news. The NHS pension scheme has adopted Verify. So she texted me at work, saying ‘this is brilliant, I’ve just used Verify to check my state pension and I’ve just used Verify to check my health service pension’. She said, ‘I love your Verify’, she said, the highest compliment in my line of work you ever get.

Angus Montgomery:

So there you go. We’ve heard from a range of people, kind of at a range of different levels about what digital has brought to them from the personal, to the professional, to the way that their organisations are structured, to the culture, to the way that they deliver services.

So I wanted to give a big thanks again to everyone who contributed their answers to this, and gave us some really really great responses. And I hoped that you enjoyed this episode and I hope that you found those responses interesting and valuable as we did.

And if you would like to contribute your own thoughts about how digital has changed the way that you work, and what excites you most about working in digital public services, we’d love to hear them so please do share on social media. You can use the hashtag #GDSpodcasts, all one word. And also if you could tag us at @GDSTeam in your comment, that would be brilliant. And then we can sort of see what you’re saying and share them more widely and it would just be lovely to hear kind of, more widely from people about what they think about this.

So that brings us to the end of this episode of the GDS podcast, so thank you very much for tuning in and listening. If you’d like to catch up with any of our previous episodes, or if you’d like to subscribe to future episodes, then please head to wherever it is that you download your podcasts from, we’re on all the major platforms, Spotify, Apple Music, Pocket Casts, everything like that. Find the GDS podcast and hit subscribe, and we hope you enjoyed this episode, and we hope that you will tune in again in the future. Thank you very much and goodbye.

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #6 - an interview with Oliver Dowden, Minister for Implementation

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #6 - an interview with Oliver Dowden, Minister for Implementation

February 21, 2019

In this episode, we talk to Minister for Implementation, Oliver Dowden CBE MP about digital government. A full transcript of the episode follows:

 

Sarah Stewart: Hello and welcome to the GDS podcast. I'm Sarah Stewart. I'm a senior writer at the Government Digital Service.

We're recording this podcast on location in the office of today's guest. Oliver Dowden became Minister for Implementation in January 2018. With this promotion came responsibility for digital government. One year on, we will talk about his year in office, his current focus and the future, in particular innovation. Minister, welcome.

 

Oliver Dowden: Good afternoon, thank you for having me on.

 

Sarah Stewart: Now, most people can imagine what a studio looks like but not many people would know what a minister's office looks like. So can you help set the scene? Where exactly are we?

 

Oliver Dowden: Well I'm very fortunate with this ministerial office. It's the sort of ministerial office that people imagine their minister to have. It's actually overlooking Horse Guards Parade, so you can see where the Trooping of the Colour happens. And it's one of those classic sort of 18th century buildings with a very high ceiling. So it's a very pleasant place to work. I'm very privileged to have an office like this.

 

Sarah Stewart: And we're right in the middle of Whitehall as well, so we're really at the centre of government.

 

Oliver Dowden: Yes, completely. We're number 70 Whitehall, so we are next door to 10 Downing Street and to the Treasury building, Parliament is diagonally opposite and it’s in the Cabinet Office.

 

The Cabinet Office is really the heart of the government machine. It's kind of like the government's HQ. It brings different parts of government to work together. It coordinates, it cajoles. We try to facilitate things working across the whole of government. And one example of this is the Government Digital Service - how we ensure that digital transformation happens across government, how we have the same standards across government, how we embrace emergent technologies in government.

 

Sarah Stewart: It’s a really fantastic place from which to operate. So, just before we start...I take it at the portrait of Pitt the Younger on your wall isn't from your personal collection?

 

Oliver Dowden: No, sadly, sadly it's not and I'm certainly not trying to send any message with Pitt the Younger behind me! [laughter] I look at Pitt the Younger and think how little I have achieved! I think he became Prime Minister in his twenties, although I think he perhaps died when he was about my age or shortly afterwards.

 

Sarah Stewart: Well at great risk to my reputation, I'm going to venture some 18th century political trivia – I believe it was it was Pitt the Younger who shaped the role of Prime Minister into one of a coordinator of government departments – so this is my convenient segue into asking you how it feels to be a coordinator of a government department.

 

Oliver Dowden: Well I work to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, David

Lidington, so I suppose he's the ultimate coordinator of my government department in which I serve as a minister. But certainly an awful lot of what I do as a minister is coordination.

So whether that is the functional agenda that works across government, so the coordination of a common government estates policy, coordination of common government HR, common government commercial relationships and common government digital practices, all of this is about trying to move from a situation where you have in each individual government department you have a completely separate commercial team, a completely separate estates team completely separate HR team, and say ‘actually in most government departments we have a lot in common so why don't we try and work together, follow the common good and harness our combined powers’, as it were, and it also fits into another part of my brief which is implementation...I’m the Minister for Implementation people usually ask ‘well what does that actually mean?’...

 

Sarah Stewart:...Yes, how did you get that title? Is that something you select yourself? Or..?

 

Oliver Dowden: Yes, well it was the Prime Minister...so when the Prime Minister appointed me at the beginning of last year, she said that one of the big challenges we have in government is it's perhaps the easiest thing is for politicians to make promises. It's harder, in particular at the moment, in a hung parliament, to get legislation through Parliament to make it happen.

But then how do you actually ensure that the delivery happens on the ground? And what can we do as a Cabinet Office, as ministers to try and coordinate the delivery on the ground and to deal with problems when delivery isn't happening in the way that we want. That's the essence of the implementation role: trying to unblock those problems, trying to ensure that we're on track to deliver the things that the public elected us to do. And also, I'm aided in that by the fact that I have oversight of all the government functions, so I can use the sort of mechanisms we have into our procurement relationships through commercial, our digital relationships through the digital team to try and get that broader picture of how government works.

 

Sarah Stewart: So was there anything in your background that prepared you for your role? How did you end up here?

 

Oliver Dowden: Well it depends where you want to begin with the journey. I mean, I went to my local comprehensive school and from there, I did quite well academically and I thought you know, I did quite well academically, what do you do if you get good grades? I fancy could I be a maybe a doctor, a lawyer or a teacher or maybe an accountant? Those were the only things I could think of. So I thought well law sounds... being a lawyer sounds quite interesting, so I applied and was fortunate enough to win a place to study law at Cambridge. I studied law...I didn't find it the most exciting, enjoyable thing to do [laughs] but I got offered a place, a training contract, with a city firm. But I wasn't so sure about it so I decided to try and do something different. So I actually worked in Japan teaching for a year in rural Japan...

 

Sarah Stewart: Oh wow.

 

Oliver Dowden: ...which was a fascinating experience in very, very rural Japan. I was a long way from any other English speakers and I didn't actually speak a word of English – of Japanese – when I arrived so I sort of had to learn my Japanese from a book. But it was a fascinating experience. I came back, I completed my legal training, but I realised very rapidly that law wasn't for me and after a few different jobs, I kind of got into advisory work and from there found out about an opportunity to work for the Conservative Party. I've always been a Conservative, but never thought of politics as being something I'd actually do for my main job.

I worked on the 2005 election campaign and I got to know David Cameron. And when he became leader of the Conservative Party, I ended up working for him on the 2010 General Election campaign and he asked me to go into Number 10, initially as political adviser and then deputy chief of staff in Downing Street. And I genuinely thought when the 2015 election came around, I'll leave after that. And then essentially my home seat... the incumbent Member of Parliament was retiring from my home seat, and eventually after lots of sort of deliberating and discussing it with my family, I thought I'd regret not, you know, seizing the opportunity and having the privilege of representing an area that I knew so well. And I was fortunate enough

to be selected as a candidate and elected as Member of Parliament in 2015, and then fortunate enough to be appointed as minister in the government by the Prime Minister at the beginning of 2018.

I mean, I think in terms of what shaped me and helped me in this, I think having exposure to lots of different people from lots of different backgrounds whether that's, you know, a complete culture shock of teaching in rural Japan or...I certainly don't come from a political family or a family that has any experience in sort of government, so you certainly get a different perspective there in terms of seeing things from the outside. That's certainly given me, and in my wider ministerial role, a passion for ensuring that we have genuine diversity both in the Civil Service and in public appointments, because I really think that if you get a group of people around the table who have different experiences whether that's culture, education, gender, ethnic background, those different experiences coming together helps you make better decisions and strengthens decision-making. And also, I think it's morally incumbent on government, for the country, to be governed by people who represent the country as a whole.

 

Sarah Stewart: I'd like to know what your very first job was.

 

Oliver Dowden: My very first job was actually working in a warehouse in Dunstable, which is just outside of Luton in Bedfordshire. It was an import/export business and I spent many holidays and summers and so on. Particularly two tasks I remember: respraying faulty produce that came in and then and wiring lamps. I wired lots and lots of lamps during those years and then boxing and packing and sending them on. But it was a relatively small organization and our duties extended to everything including cleaning, and you know the whole gambit.

 

Sarah Stewart: So the seeds for technology were sewn actually at a very early age.

 

Oliver Dowden: The practical application of technology, definitely!

 

Sarah Stewart: So you we're David Cameron's deputy chief of staff, so you were around during the creation of the Government Digital Service. How does it feel to go from witnessing the creation of an organization to being the minister

responsible for it in quite a short period of time?

 

Oliver Dowden:

I mean I don't I don't want to overplay my hand in the creation of the Government Digital Service – I pay real tribute to Francis Maude who was the minister that drove the creation of this.

And you know, in Number 10, we were very supportive of it, and I think what Francis did fantastically with the Government Digital Service was to seize the opportunity of creating something that sits across the whole of government, drives digital transformation. And he took some very bold decisions. He wasn't afraid to break things as it were, to drive the digital transformation. And he really got the Government Digital Service established and established the UK's a world leader in this space. So I kind of had a sense of the origins of the Government Digital Service, certainly coming in as one of the ministers responsible for it, reporting to David Lidington.

I think there's more we can do to be telling the story of how much GDS has achieved and how much it is currently doing. So for example if you look at Government as a Platform, the creation of GOV.UK, that's a common platform for all of government, it brings together disparate areas of government activity which now literally has billions of hits every year. We're pioneering things like GOV.UK Notify, GOV.UK Pay, again all of this is trying to do two things. First of all to move away from individual departments to the common government experience. I think most people just want to go somewhere and get government to do something for them. So removing those kind of artificial boundaries, but secondly continuing this push about how we drive the best innovation and disruption because it's really the tech revolution is driven by disruption and it's that's quite a challenge for government to cope with it but we have to keep on pushing because otherwise we will find government falling behind the rest of the economy.

 

Sarah Stewart: So what's the current focus for digital government at the moment?

 

Oliver Dowden: Well I think it's a number of things. First of all it is continuing and driving their end-to-end digitisation of government services so we need to... almost all government services now have an initial digital interface, but it's not the case that all government services are digitised all the way through. Often there are mechanical back-office functions, that slow things down and we're not taking the best advantage of the use of tech. So that is the kind of that digital transformation sits at the core. It's also creating commonalities across government, so continuing to drive the government as a platform and continue to develop such as GOV.UK Notify and so on. It's about driving up training and understanding – not just people in the digital profession – but wider policymakers say they understand the potential and it's also about seeing how we can apply the latest technology and GDS being a guide and a leader for departments in how they can embrace that new technology.

 

Sarah Stewart: So as you've alluded to, your brief is very varied. How do you focus your time?

 

Oliver Dowden: Well, to a certain extent they complement one another. So if you take, for example, emergent technology, I'm very keen for the government to embrace emergent technology, to use the opportunities that are there to help transform the service that citizens receive, and do so in a more efficient way. That kind of then links in to how we deliver and how we achieve implementation, but it also links into the commercial part of my brief because a lot of that has to be procured from the private sector.

So I tend to think of it more in terms of where can I really focus my efforts. But an area that really interests me, and I think we've got a huge potential, is in relation to GovTech and to innovative technologies and government digital transformation. I think for a number of reasons. I think first of all, it's one of those few areas where you can say hand on heart, if we get this right we can deliver more for less and we can deliver a better outcome for citizens. That's pretty unusual across different areas of government. The second reason is that we have a wonderful tech sector in this country and actually if we can prove that tech works to deliver better outcomes for people in the UK Government, it unlocks opportunities for tech companies to apply that around the world. I think thirdly, in terms of the wider implementation role, if you think about how people's experience of consuming in the private sector has changed enormously in the past 10 or 20 years through disruptive technologies whether that's – not recommending any particular company – but let's say the way Amazon has transformed the shopping and consumer experience, Airbnb in relation to accommodation, as Spotify and others in relation to the consumption of music, all those kind of disruptions are making products more easily available, often more cheaply available and more readily accessible in general. I think we should be aspiring to do the same thing in respective to public services. And I think if we fail to do that in respective public services in years to come people will begin to draw an unfavorable contrast between how they consume services in the public sector versus how they do so in the private sector.

 

Sarah Stewart: So, what exactly is standing in our way, in terms of government making process?

 

Oliver Dowden: There are areas of very very good practice across different bits of government. So, for example, HMRC has done a lot of work in terms of embracing repeat robotic processes, similarly DWP, if you look at, for example, the government GovTech Challenge. This is a fund to use new and emergent technologies. We've been doing some fantastic stuff around AI and geospatial data but it's not a consistent picture. So I think one of the things I'm trying to do in the production of an emergent technology strategy, is to try and draw out the best of what government is doing, showcase it, learn what we did to make that work well so then those lessons can be applied elsewhere in government. But it links into other areas as well. How we procure those kind of things from the private sector how we get the best of innovation from the private sector and it goes to things like the culture of government. So we want to make sure that people feel empowered to be able to take proportionate risks. I think you're not going to get innovation without taking risks and sometimes those risks will go wrong. It is okay to fail, if you're helping to drive that innovation. So, trying to achieve that that cultural change as well.

 

Sarah Stewart: Why do we need a strategy?

 

Oliver Dowden: It’s not about government sticking a finger in the air and saying ‘we want to go for blockchain because it's the technology of the moment’, it's just thinking how we how we can make use of that, so that that kind of started the ball rolling. But when you start the ball rolling about how do you think you can use emergent technology, that opens up wider questions, as I said around procurement, around the culture of government, so it's sort of broadened into those different areas. And actually it's been very interesting in framing this strategy – rather than us sort of sitting in Whitehall with a few at policy officials trying to come up with a policy, we've tried to go out there and talk to people. So I've held events in different parts of the country, indeed I also attended an event in in Paris where we talked about this as well, which was hosted, well variously attended, by both the President of France and the Prime Minister of Canada, which gives you some sort of indication of the seriousness that all governments are taking. But we've also been to Edinburgh, to different parts of England, the rest of United Kingdom. And you get consistent messages coming through. And those relate to how we need to change the culture of government, to embrace new technologies, how we need to change the way we buy in technologies, how we need to improve skills. So hopefully what people will see in the strategy, when it's produced, are sensible steps to help us do that. I'm not promising that this is going to be the endpoint, clearly it won't be, but hopefully there will be some helpful signposts along the route.

 

Sarah Stewart: So in that period of engagement was there anything that really stood out to you? Any ‘aha!’ moments you learned from any of the academics or the practitioners or tech leaders in the field?

 

Oliver Dowden: I think all roads lead back data. And it's certainly the case that data...it really feels to me that this year and the next year is the moment where we move from seeing the potential of data that's been talked about a lot to actually it's starting to lead to some big breakthroughs in how we do things differently. And actually you're starting to see it in the health sector already. And I think that it strikes me that this is a very exciting time, but in order to unlock that there's a lot of work to be done. For example, the government holds a huge amount of data, but often that data is not accessible, so we need to look about how we make it more accessible and we also need to look at how we make people not just do all the sort of tech experts understand the potential but all policymakers need to understand the potential of the data that they hold. So I think if there's one ‘aha moment’ when I thought that this is something we could really go big on that is probably it.

Sarah Stewart: If I could just move on to talk to you about your work with SMEs and the GovTech sector.You've said previously that innovation relies on, or successful innovation relies on, a good relationship with the private sector. Why can't government go it alone?

 

Oliver Dowden: Well I think we have we have so many opportunities out there. If you look at the kind of interesting, innovative stuff that is going on with SMEs, it’s not just SMEs, large companies as well they're doing interesting stuff with emergent technologies, they're doing interesting stuff with data. The idea that government is going to have all the answers or can create all the answers... if we don't embrace that what's going on the private sector [could mean] we're missing out on a huge amount of knowledge and creativity. And I think the best way to proceed is to work in in partnership, so there will be some instances – and GDS does this a lot – GDS does stuff in-house, but equally we buy in skills and knowledge and I think that then reinforces a healthy mixed-market economy whereby we create opportunities for the private sector. The private sector manages to grow through having those opportunities, but we get lots of ideas and intellectual property from the private sector. I think that enriches both sides of the economy in the UK and helps strengthen our position as a global digital leader.

 

Sarah Stewart: How are you making – or how is government – making it easier for the private sector and the public sector to collaborate?

 

Oliver Dowden: We've already made a good start with GovTech [Catalyst] which is a £20 million fund announced by the Treasury just last year that has been run through Cabinet Office and the Government Digital Service. We've had three rounds of challenges doing lots of interesting... taking lots of interesting challenges and using emergent technologies to address them. And what GovTech has done is to try and sort of soften the barrier between government and the private sector through procurement, because I think, too often, government decides what it wants then goes out to market with a very prescriptive solution and quite a rigid procurement process. Having the opportunity to have a competition where you have different stages so different people pitch into what the solution might look like is one things we managed to do with GovTech, and it forms part of a pattern that I hope we can add to where we have the opportunity for soft engagement in procurement before it actually happens. We can get the ideas from the private sectors to what we're after and how we procure it.

 

Sarah Stewart: So there is life for digital government beyond the end of the Government Transformation Strategy? They'll always be work to do.

 

Oliver Dowden: Oh there will always be work to do. I don't think the digital transformation of society and the economy as a whole is going to end anytime soon [laughter] and government has to keep up with it.

 

Sarah Stewart: And of course, we're supporting EU exit as well. GDS is playing an important role there. Do you think that meeting the short-term needs of EU exit will in be in any way compromised, or compromise, the longer term ambitions for government transformation or indeed, do you think it will accelerate it?

 

Oliver Dowden: I think it's more likely to be the latter. I think there are there are big opportunities created by the need to adapt to Brexit and certainly, necessity can often drive innovation and I think that's one of the core things that GDS is doing.

 

Sarah Stewart: You mentioned the principles of GDS and indeed other departments who are undergoing digital transformation. And the first principle is users first. And I suppose as a constituency MP, you're doing user research all the time, listening to what people want and wanting to deliver on those things. How does that play into your role as a minister? How does what they say, translate?

 

Oliver Dowden: I'm the number one thing is that most people care about outcomes not processes. I think what GDS is doing is increasingly shifting that focus towards the output regardless of the different government processes so for example we're looking at how you can just type in ‘learn to drive’ and it cuts across the different parts of government that help you achieve that or ‘start your own business’ or ‘move house’ – all those kind of things. That's that's what citizens are looking for and I think that's that would be an increasing trend in what we're doing I think. That also links in to how you interface as well. Depending on almost precisely how old you are, you relate to digital in different ways and increasingly there's use of voice technology, accessing technology through all different mediums we need to make sure we're keeping up with that.

 

Sarah Stewart: You mentioned visiting the GovTech summit in Paris. Do you keep an eye on what other governments are doing in the innovation space? Is there any country in particular that's piquing your interest?

 

Oliver Dowden: Well I think we're fortunate to be quite ahead of the curve in the UK, but I'm always conscious of who's playing catch up and it's interesting – all around the world people are starting to do this. So Singapore have made it a huge priority and hopefully I'm going to Denmark later this month, where again the government there is really committed to digital transformation and everyone knows about Estonia as well, that was the leader though clearly Estonia it’s slightly different. Canada is doing a lot of work. I was talking to High Commissioner about it just the other day. So there is definitely...I wouldn't say a race because I think we're all trying to get to the same endpoint, but I want to make sure that the UK is at the forefront of doing that.

 

Sarah Stewart: Yes, what do they say? A rising tide lifts all ships?

 

Oliver Dowden: Exactly.

 

Sarah Stewart: When you were on your travels and conducting your engagement to inform the strategy was there anyone in particular that you found particularly interesting or that really helped shape your understanding?

 

Oliver Dowden: Yes there's lots of examples. I think what's being done with CivTech in Scotland it's very interesting. We've kind of done a similar thing to it with GovTech but I think there are definitely lessons that we can learn from there. You can't help but be impressed by some of the tech applications particularly in relation to virtual reality. That's some way down the line for government but it is certainly something that makes you think.

 

Sarah Stewart: And just as we draw to a close, what have been the high points of your year?

 

Oliver Dowden: Well it was I must say it was a tremendous privilege to be in Paris and President Macron hosted us for lunch at the Élysée Palace, we were able to talk about this on a pan-European level. That brought home to me how this is an exciting and emergent trend, but also looking in terms of the practical application, seeing how the use of technology has been transforming people's lives and that's what we're all in government for in the end, making people's lives better.

 

Sarah Stewart: And there was one more thing…the podcast of course.

 

Oliver Dowden: Of course! Oh but you asked up til now! The podcast is ongoing!

 

Sarah Stewart: Well that brings us to the end of today's podcast. Thank you so much for joining us it's been really interesting.

 

Oliver Dowden: Pleasure, thank you.

 

Sarah Stewart: Thank you very much for listening. I hope you enjoyed it and that you'll listen again next month when we talk to more interesting people about interesting things in the world of digital government. Until then, farewell.

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #5 - an interview with Kit Collingwood

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #5 - an interview with Kit Collingwood

January 30, 2019

In this episode, we talk to former DWP Deputy Director and OneTeamGov co-founder Kit Collingwood about her time in government. 

A full transcript of the episode follows:

Angus Montgomery:
Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast, my name’s Angus Montgomery, I’m a senior writer at GDS and I’m very pleased to be joined today by Kit Collingwood, currently at DWP but recently announced soon to be leaving and getting an exciting new job in agency-world, so we’ll be talking to Kit about her time in government and looking back over some of the things that she’s done, so thankyou for joining us Kit

Kit Collingwood:
Thanks for having me.

Angus Montgomery:
So Kit, just to kick things off could you tell me a little bit about your role at DWP, your current role, and some of the things that you do there?

Kit Collingwood:
Sure. So my role is head of data transformation for the Department for Work and Pensions, so what my teams do is we work in the intersection between data, digital and technology to improve services and improve decision-making.

Angus Montgomery:
And how did you end up there? What’s your career path been so far? Because you’ve been around- well, I think it’s fair to say you’re a well-known figure in digital government. You’ve been around digital government for a while. What’s that journey entailed?

Kit Collingwood:
Well, it’s a huge cosmic accident actually. I worked actually in the engineering sector for five years after I graduated. I was a proof-reader and a translator for five years and then I decided that I wanted to be in the public service in some capacity. So I in 2009 joined the civil service fast-stream. I was a policy maker for three years working on different areas of justice policy, and I worked in parliament for a while putting a bill through parliament.

When I came from the end of that experience, I almost left the civil service because the ways that I thought that policy making and parliamentary work were happening were so antiquated and so out of touch with the average person’s experience that I’d really sort of lost faith with a lot of government ways of working and I was really saddened by a lot of what I’d seen. There was really no empathy or contact with people on the outside of Whitehall and I felt myself really distanced from average human experience.

At the same time, I fell into a delivery manager job at a place called the Office of the Public Guardian, which is one of the executive agencies of the Ministry of Justice. I applied for it as a fast-stream role, so it was just one of the regular rotation roles. I didn’t know what a delivery manager was. I didn’t really know how the internet worked, and I knew nothing about agile or about technology. I applied for this role called delivery manager which looked quite fun, and it turned out to be the delivery manager for the lasting power of attorney service, which was one of the first exemplars in the GDS transformation programme.

So this was coming towards the end of 2012, which is why I’ve been around for a long time because the beginning of digital government I suppose was around that time in the way that we know it now. GDS was about a year old really.

I had an induction that was hilarious in hindsight where my boss sat me down on my first day and she said, “Here’s your induction. I’ve just quit.” So my boss quit on my first day, and she was head of the transformation programme for the Office of Public Guardian. I, being the cheeky youngster that I was, went to her boss and said, “Can I have her job please on a temporary promotion?” And he was foolish enough to give it to me, and that’s how I came into digital government.

Angus Montgomery:
Oh wow.

Kit Collingwood:
So I was the accidental head of a transformation programme that I had no idea how to lead, but I did have some ideas about how I thought the place could be better run. So at that point, I was working with a guy called Chris Mitchell from GDS who was one of the very first sort of transformation partners which GDS would place with departments to help them understand how to do digital. He and I got on very well and I also got on very well with Mark O’Neill who was the other person sort of in place at the Ministry of Justice, where OPG was.

So they began to teach me the ropes about what this thing called digital was because I didn’t have a clue. I didn’t know what a software developer did. I had no idea about how all of this works, and really the first six months of that were just me learning and learning and learning. Very quickly I met a few people who would completely transform how I thought about government. Tom Loosemore, Mike Bracken, Richard Pope, Tim Paul and a few others, so I would go to the old buildings in Holborn and that’s how I learned what digital government was, was from those people. They really taught me the basics of why this thing was necessary, what transformation meant, and they inspired me to stay in public service.

Angus Montgomery:
I’m interested in- because you sort of described in your early career you were becoming frustrated at the lack of human-centeredness or lack of humanness of governments, but you didn’t know what digital meant. So you kind of obviously had a lot of empathy and you understood that government needed to be more user-centred, but at what stage or how did you realise that digital was a way or the way to do this? Or is digital the way to do this?

Kit Collingwood:
No, I don’t think digital in itself is the way to do it, but it’s one of the tools that we need to be able to do it. So the ability for technology to bring services into people’s homes and everyday lives is part of the way that government should re-approach human connection. I’m fairly convinced about that, but it’s only a subset I think. We, I think, need fundamental retraining in empathy skills, or training not retraining. Fundamental training in empathy skills in order that we can approach the people we serve with compassion.

That’s not sort of pure cuddly thinking. There’s a huge economic benefit to understanding end users better, because if you understand the impact of your ideas and your policies on the average person then you can more effectively implement those policies. That to me just stands to reason, so to me high empathy has financial gains for government as well and it frustrates me that people don’t often see that.

But to put that aside, to answer your original question, the way that I sort of connected this idea of human connection and digital government was through user research, the kind of doggedness of user research. And quite quickly coming into- I think I inherited a team of sort of two or three people at the OPG and they were bolstered by some GDS folk. I mean, it’s a dream to have somebody like Richard Pope being able to effectively just consult on your ideas with, and that’s kind of an incredible privilege to have had. But there was also this cohort of user researchers, and I didn’t know what one of those was.

So just observing them at close quarters, this idea of iterating on your ideas, not doing a massive big bang thing and then just sort of hoping it works, which was- that is the way that government has and had done things. Suddenly there was this cohort of people who would do something small and then test it, see if it worked, and then do something else and then test it to see if it worked.
I saw the potential for that outside of technology, so I could see the application of that in policy-making very easily.

I could see the application of that even in law-making, which is more controversial, but I can see that. And in fact law-making is iterative actually. It goes through both houses several times, but to me the connection to end users is still lacking, and it’s got huge application for customer service as well, iterating in your ideas. None of the things I’ve just said are remotely original. They all happen now, but at the time it was quite revolutionary. So this idea of getting in a room with people who would be on the receiving end of your stuff, that was huge to me and that really reinvigorated my faith in public service.

Angus Montgomery:
And can you describe for people who weren’t around, say, back then, it wasn’t that long ago, but in 2012 when the exemplars programme was running, what was the exemplars programme? How did it function and what was the purpose of it?

Kit Collingwood:
Well, it was 25 high volume services that had a huge potential to be transformational, so it was things- so lasting power of attorney was one and that’s the ability to give somebody the power to act on your behalf if you lose mental health. There were things like carers’ allowance, which is part of my current department, Department for Work and Pensions, and also some less emotive but high volume stuff, so a lot of the DVLA’s digital services, a couple of them fell into that transformation programme as well.

So these were high volume services that would show the potential for digital government, and they were acknowledged as being the starting line really. It was to get 25 of them into beta within a certain timescale to show the pace that was potentially there. And for me to begin to develop the skills that government would need to be able to be digital for the future, one of the things which has really dragged, it’s a lot better now, but one of the things that really dragged was this acknowledgement from government that we need this massive cohort of skills to be able to be sustainable in digital beyond something that was a programme, you know, beyond something finite.
So I used that exemplar programme to build up a lot of trust and support in what I was doing so I could hire the right kind of people because I could see that this wasn’t going to go away.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes, yes. How did that actually function day to day, and what was the kind of relationship between- because exemplars is very much run by GDS with these departments. How did that work in practical terms? Was there a sort of mixed GDS/MOJ team? How did that work?

Kit Collingwood:
Yes, there was initially, yes, and then GDS slowly peeled off. I’m wary that I’m speaking entirely from my own experience. I know that I have an overwhelmingly positive experience of it. Other departments I know felt almost affronted that GDS were coming in and sort of telling them how to do their own services effectively, and I know that there was tension there.

Angus Montgomery:
Why do you think your experience was positive in that sense? Because GDS was still coming in and kind of telling you or showing you a way of doing something. Why do you think that worked when it might not have worked elsewhere?

Kit Collingwood:
I never felt that I was being told anything. Maybe it’s because I was so keen to listen, so I felt very humbled by being in this new role, so part of it undoubtedly will be how willing I was to listen to them. I was in a new executive agency, so the OPG was new to me. The Office of the Public Guardian was new, so I was learning the professional domain I was in. I was learning the technical domain and I was learning about digital government so I felt extraordinarily empty-headed. But I’m a really good leader, so I knew I could lead the things. I knew I’d have the right ideas, but I had so much to learn and probably me being so open to learning helped us move that path. If I’d have had slightly more emotional and professional capital invested in what had already gone before, maybe it would have gone less smoothly. That was definitely part of it.

The other thing is I recruit curious people, so the team that I brought in to work with me in the OPG were secondees from operational centres, people from policy-making, some external hires. I always promoted a culture of partnership with GDS, so for me they were friends from the beginning. I had no reason not to have that attitude and other people did.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes. And I suppose the other kind of truism that’s spoken about the exemplars is that they were really, really difficult to work on and that there was burnout and that there were people working incredibly hard but getting incredibly frustrated, and was that something you experienced as well?

Kit Collingwood:
I didn’t burn out. I found it hugely energising, and again I think my teams were protected by the fact that we did have such a positive relationship. I’m quite keen on sustainable mental health so we never were a team that would work until midnight. We never thought that was cool. We never thought there was anything cool about that, so it never felt very tense in our office. It never- and also you have to embrace a bit of humility in what you’re doing. You’re doing something great and we had a great sense of pride about that, but it’s not brain surgery. Nobody was going to die if we all knocked off at 6:00pm instead of 10:00pm. We took it incredibly seriously but not too seriously, so we never did burnout.

We were extraordinarily focused. We basically did one thing for nine months and then we did a second thing for another nine months, so sustainability was always on my mind. And I found very quickly, because I got promoted quite quickly  at that time, I was in danger at the end of my time of OPG of losing visibility of individual products being delivered, so I always had this awareness that you can reach a tipping point where people will start to feel out of focus, and I’d known that from my own experience. So I always tried to have empathy with my teams and make sure that they could work at a pace that suited them.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes. And they understood- because the other thing about working in that sort of environment is you’re delivering so quickly, you kind of need to- I don’t know. This is just me positing, I suppose. You kind of need to step back and look at what you’ve achieved as well and if you’re delivering really quickly that can be quite hard to do.

Kit Collingwood:
Yes, it was a whirlwind. It always felt like a happy whirlwind, and a lot of the- we had like the lowest turnover of the whole place, you know, really high engagement, and there were people still working in that digital team that have been there now for five or six years, so it was a good place to be, but the pace was high. I remember a year in we looked back at what we’d done and we’d done one service from scratch to public beta, an additional service from scratch into alpha. We’d done the first digital strategy. We’d quadrupled the team size. We’d redrawn how we did recruitment. We’d changed the pay scales. We’d redone our commercial contract so that we were outside of big IT contracts, and what else had we done? There was something else as well. Oh, we’d redesigned the governance as well so we could do our governance.

And we’d sort of looked back after a year and we were like, “Holy.” We did a lot, and a lot of it was- there was a real lack of self-importance to that team. We knew we were doing good stuff, but when we wrote our strategy it was like eight pages so we did it in about three weeks, so there was a real lack of fanfare in a good way. You know, it was just heads down and crack on and try not to show off too much.

Angus Montgomery:
It’s interesting you say that because that’s one of the things, because I joined GDS in 2016 because I’d been a journalist before so I’d been a sort of observer of digital government and one of the things that really struck me about what GDS and what people working in digital were doing was that they were delivering stuff. GDS in particular was really vocal about the work that it was doing, but it was showing the work. It wasn’t talking about abstract things or concepts or strategies. It was like, “Here’s a thing that we’ve done. Here’s how it works,” and that was really inspiring as someone outside this.

Kit Collingwood:
The phrase of strategy as delivery is banded around by everybody now, and it’s almost had its hay-day. People have almost stopped saying it in some circles, but I can’t describe how powerful that was to somebody like me who’d come out of the most bureaucratic part of Whitehall, you know, the middle of a policy team, a kind of strategic policy team, and I’d come out of- I’d worked for all three main political parties by that point, so I’d joined the government in 2009 and I’d worked for the coalition government which I was working for at that time.

So working with a lot of different ministers doing things like ministerial handover, loads of briefings, lots of policy documents, lots of consultation, very slow, sluggish pace. Great work being done but sluggish, and suddenly this idea that we could be released from writing constant documents to prove the worth of what we were doing was just ridiculously revolutionary, and I can’t  exactly describe why. It’s so obvious that you could get on with the work rather than spend a million years doing a 100-page business case, but to me that was like, “Oh, Christ, I can do this so differently.” And that’s why our strategy took three weeks and it was eight pages, and our business case was like ten pages.

The hidden bit about that was a lot of me putting my neck on the line saying, “No, no, no, I’m going to write this short. It’s going to be really short, really simple,” trying to simplify everything, and that’s where the effort went. It’s a funny analogy actually because it’s the same way that the design plans went as well. Government websites are massively overdesigned. Then GDS comes out with something that’s basically a white page with a green button in the middle with a bit of highlighting on it and everyone is like, “Oh. That’s how we’re going to design things now,” and they were like, “Yes, yes. We just basically don’t put much on the page.” Everyone is like, “Oh, right,” and it’s a really analogous approach to what I took to everything after, business cases, documentation, recruitment processes, governance. Everything went the same way. You don’t need to clutter it with all of that noise.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes. It’s just so incredibly powerful because you were in government while this was happening, but I was reporting on the private sector and the private sector organisations weren’t doing this. It took an organisation within government or a group of people within government to drive this kind of simplicity home. And working in government now and understanding the complexities of it, it’s just unbelievable almost that that happened.

Kit Collingwood:
Yes, and of course it peed people off. Of course it did. Everybody who had ever built one of those websites would be peed off because that’s your work being rubbished by these people, all of whom were pretty young. They were highly paid because they’d come from the private sector. They were off, siphoned off from Whitehall. They were other, and they were consistent. GDS were consistently othered by a lot of big government departments, and still are frankly. I don’t think you can be a rebel of that magnitude without peeing off a hell a lot of people.

What I took as my task was to try and- I’d been in a policy-making community that thought that digital government were a load of jeans-wearing hipsters. Now I was in a digital community that thought that policy-makers were a load of 50-year-old white fuddy-duddies, and elements of both of those things are true. You know, there are jeans wearing hipsters in digital government and there are white middle-aged fuddy-duddies in policy making but that doesn’t mean that we’re not trying to do the right thing.

So from that point, my mission was just trying  to connect people so that- you can’t do anything without trust so it’s just trying to increase the level of trust between the different communities that I was operating in.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes. And how did you- because I guess we’ve talked a lot about the exemplars and the rapid pace of what was happening, the rapid pace of change, and touched on things like the controversies around that. But you’ve been in government for a long time and carried on that work, and how did you make it sustainable? How did you take that kind of environment and that thinking and sustain it into another department, into another role, into new teams?

Kit Collingwood:
I think it was a series of steps really. There were some mechanistic steps such as I began quite early to realise that government funding isn’t set up for digital. It is a bit better now, but at that point you did project works. You’re funded for a blob of thing and when the thing ended you weren’t funded for the thing anymore. Well, that was never going to work with things like CICD, so the continuous delivery of technology doesn’t work with that funding model. I blessedly realised that quite early and I started to work very closely with finance and commercial business partners to smooth out that path so that things like- this is so boring, but this was what got it done. CapEx versus OpEx was well-known and well chartered, so I didn’t want to have a drop in the team that was sharp between this thing called build and this thing called run. For me that’s still a false divide. Well, anybody who works in a DevOps way, that’s a false divide.

So I plotted with them to go from a full team size- say your team size is 10. Over time I would look to retain 4 of that team and I would build that into a bigger business case and I’d have like a slide down from one to the other. And putting in the groundwork with those people who are naturally mistrusting of something where it looks like you’re trying to game an existing process and just getting them to see what I was doing and these services- if you run these services while in perpetuity, you don’t have to then have this change request of £1m a year down the line.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes, that comes in, yes, yes.

Kit Collingwood:
Because you’re continuously enhancing what you’re doing, but you can enhance it with a smaller team and it wasn’t always cheaper actually or it didn’t always look cheaper, but I knew that you’d then five years down the line wouldn’t have to buy the thing again because you’d have built it in-house. So it was a lot of donkey work of redrawing everything about how we do finance and commercial work and commercial partnering and governance and all that kind of stuff, so that was part of it.

Part of it was government catching up, so digital became not weird while I was a couple of years in, call it 2014, digital government was then effectively becoming sustainable in its own right. I had to fight a lot less hard to get the basics that I wanted to get done done. In the early days I had to have Mike Bracken come and advocate for the things I wanted to get done. It was that ridiculous. I didn’t need that by 2014, and at that point I moved to Ministry of Justice digital, the central digital team, and that had people like Dave Rogers in it who’s still there. He was great, and you kind of move from sensible support people to sensible support people.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes. How do you kind of- well, it might sound a stupid question, but how do you identify and how do you end up working with people like that? How do you find allies?

Kit Collingwood:
How do I find allies?

Angus Montgomery:
Because I do get the sense there’s kind of a network of people in different departments now, and the names are probably well known of people who are doing good things who-

Kit Collingwood:
Yes. How did we all find each other? Sort of thing.

Angus Montgomery:
How did you all find each other? Yes.

Kit Collingwood:
I think we were all curious. So this community of- they’re well known on digital government Twitter. That community of people. You know, there’s probably a couple of hundred of us who’ve been around for- call it five years or more. Dave Rogers is one of them. All of the original GDSs are in there as well, although many of us have gone our separate ways.

For the ones who weren’t the real inception, so the Mikes and Toms, I think curiosity was a big bit of it. A lot of us found each other from being mutually introduced by well-networked people, so people like Tom would introduce us sometimes. Emer Coleman was another one for doing that. Kathy Settle. There were these people who knew people and they’d say, “Oh, so and so,” and then people would make some kind of connection between us and we’d almost invariably get on, so that was part of it.

Those of us who came out of Whitehall as opposed to being external hires found a natural empathy with each other because we’d been so frustrated by where we’d been and we were generally known as being pains in the bum basically where we are and we were quite grateful- I always think if you, in any meeting room, say you’ve got 12 people in a meeting room, you’re the one that feels really outré and the radical one. You’re just in the wrong room, and suddenly you’re in the right room and it’s just this huge comfort.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes, that was going to be my next question is kind of, what are you looking for in these people? Because it sounds like a mix of sort of bravery in a sense of they’re willing to take a risk with something. They’ve got convictions, but also they have empathy.

Kit Collingwood:
Yes. Well, I probably can’t swear in this podcast, can I?

Angus Montgomery:
I think you maybe could.

Kit Collingwood:
I’ll put it the opposite way. I only work with lovely people, that’s my rule, so three is something about being kind and warm that is at the core of the kind of person I would look to work with. But there’s something about- the way I put it is we want to reform the machine without breaking it, so all of those people are massively inpatient with the way the government works, massively frustrated, want to beat their heads against the wall but basically love the place, and if they leave they’ll always come back. They are either civil servants through and through in their DNA or you know that you’ll see them again in some point in the future, and it’s those people who care deeply about public service, it gives them that lovely balance of wanting to do the right thing by end users but without completely breaking the machine that they’re working in, and it’s a really hard balance to strike. But when you find it, it’s like gold dust. They’re the best people.

Angus Montgomery:
Right, okay. And the other thing I wanted to talk to you about was One Team Gov as well because you were one of the- were you one of the founders of One Team Gov? Is that right?

Kit Collingwood:
I was.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes. Well, first of tell me why it was set up and what the purpose if it is.

Kit Collingwood:
One Team Gov was born out of my frustration at the lack of empathy between government professions, so it’s the ultimate realisation of my experience leaving policy-making and going into digital government really. And having observed and then worked in such a tribal system where if you weren’t us, you were them and you weren’t to be trusted. Well, id’ belonged to two tribes and I was like,  “Well, where’s the ‘us’ in the middle of all this ‘them’ then if everybody is ‘them’?”

So I spoke at a conference in March 2017 about- I gave a talk about data as it happens. That’s what I’m working on at the moment, and I was advised to go and see a guy speak after me called James Reeve who works at the Department for Education. I’d been told he was a great speaker and I listened to him and I spoke to him afterwards and we got on really well, and he was also coming out of policy making and going into a digital role, so the same thing that I’d done, what, five years previously he was now doing.

We talked about the experience of how policy-makers don’t get on with digital people in mutual mistrust, and we’d said we’d both been to professional events. We’d been to policy-making events and digital events, but there was no rebel event just for- where are all your generic rebels regardless of background? Where is anybody welcome?

Angus Montgomery:
This is how you find each other, was it?

Kit Collingwood:
Yes, exactly. And the tagline we often use for One Team Gov is if you’re tired of waiting for the revolution, start one yourself, not that we aim to start a revolution. That’s really self-important, but we did want to have an event where you would be welcomed as a reformer regardless of your background. You didn’t have to be some whizzy fast-streamer. You didn’t have to be anything really, and we just had a single event.

As we were coming up to the event we realised that we wanted to make it a community, so we, classic bit of partnership, Joe Lanman who works here as a designer designed us some branding and we built a little website and we got some regular meet-ups in which are still going now 18 months down the line. All we aimed to do was just to give a safe space to rebels, that’s all. So those people who don’t want to trash the machine but want to make it better, we just wanted to be the people that they could go to, and that was it. It was and is super simple really. [00:35:30] It’s based mainly on networks, on connections and on honest conversations with people. But the heartbeat of it is our meet-ups that we have in London, Cardiff, in the north, Scotland, Stockholm, Ottawa.

Angus Montgomery:
Internationally now.

Kit Collingwood:
Yes. So it spreads internationally through those same networks of those positive rebels, and, yes, I’m really proud of it. It gives such a safe space to those people who are just sitting in the wrong meeting room being that single person. They just need to find the right meeting room and we’ve given them that.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes. One of the things that strikes me having talked about your time working in digital government is you’ve gone from, and this is kind of, I suppose, illustrative of digital government as a whole. You’ve gone from working on an exemplar, so a single service or a single digital touchpoint, to working in an area where you’re bringing together people from across different professions to look at kind of the much wider picture, and that to me kind of illustrates the broadening of digital government, how we think about it from kind of these single touch points to suddenly these whole services or these whole kind of policies. Is that kind of how you see your career having developed? Do you think it has kind of gone like that?

Kit Collingwood:
Yes. Yes, I think it has. It started off as a blob. We were almost a carbuncle in the beginning and seen by some as a carbuncle as well, and the world to make digital governments sustainable- well, you know, they say that it’ll be sustainable when we stop saying digital, but we’re not there yet. And to my mind, you’ll still need specialist technologists in government so you’ll always have a thing called a technology team or a digital team or something, so it’s not quite the ambition to never say digital ever again but it should evolve in meaning, I think, to encompass not just technologists but people who are interested in internet-enabled reform, which is kind of how I would characterise it.

So, yes, it’s definitely evolved from being something where you’re a heavily specialist team relatively separated from the rest of the organisation to something where every profession is welcome. One of the things that- I get a bit [00:40:26] twitchy talking about things that I’ve done that I’m proud of because I get self-conscious, but there are a few and of them there’s somebody called Kaz Hufton who was- she worked for the Office of Public Guardian and she worked in our call centre. She’s one of our operational people and we found her and she was an exceptionally good and is an exceptionally good product manager.

We found her in operations, and she proved very quickly that she was going to be better at this job than anybody else we could find and we made her a product manager, and I had to propose and then stand behind that decision. She needed to be promoted about three times because the grade difference between operations and digital was quite tricky at that point, but we did that and it proved something. It proved that if you’re this thing called operations, you don’t have to stay there forever just as I hadn’t in policy. You can transition your career actually, and people come into digital and learn how to do product development. You don’t need a million years to learn how to do it. You need a lot of smarts, a lot of empathy, very open ears, and then professional skills that you learn down the line.

I was so glad that we gave her that break, and that’s something that I’ve done consistently ever since is not assume that if somebody is a policy-maker that they can never be a digital person or vice versa. It’s the same reason I started One Team Gov is it’s kind of this you don’t have to stay in that tribe actually. You can go and work across, and I suppose where I am now working in data is a natural extension of that because to my mind, there needs to be a data leap for government in the same way that there was a digital leap for government from 2011 onwards.

Data people are still a little bit off in a silo in a corner being nerds. They’re even siphoned off from product teams, so one of the missions that I’ve had in DWP is to work intersectionally between digital data and technology so that we blur those professional boundaries. Somebody like a data scientist is a classic- you know, if you call them sort of a coder analyst, they’re already a technologist and a data professional, so why do they have to sit over in that corner? Why can’t they come and be in this product team? And embedding data scientists into product teams has been one of the things that we’ve done in DWP to absolutely great effect.

So again it’s trying to fight the good fight every day for people, dropping their assumptions about what somebody can and can’t do.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes, yes, yes. And just before we finish off, I’d like to ask you, I suppose potentially at the risk of making you feel uncomfortable, a couple of questions about you and how you operate, I suppose. You said earlier in this conversation that when you’re taking about going on the exemplar you didn’t know much about digital but you knew how to lead, and you are one of the people in this world who’s seen, I suppose, as a role model, as a leader. What sort of behaviours do you hope that you’re showing, that you hope that people kind of pick up? What do you hope that you’re role modelling that people will pick up from you?

Kit Collingwood:
I’m kind to people.

Angus Montgomery:
That’s the best behaviour.

Kit Collingwood:
You can never have too much kindness in the world, I think, and I think I’m pretty consistently kind. I will say that about myself. I’m very willing to re-examine what is a yes and what’s a no because I’m very dogged in the pursuit of what I believe to be right, and I think that’s a good role model for the bit of government I’m in because you have to be fairly persistent to get things done and I’ve never taken a no to be a final no. I’ve always been able to chase down what I believe to be the right answer. I don’t know if that’s- maybe I’m ideological, but I’ve always tried to fight for the right thing.

I hope that I am seen as being passionate about diversion and inclusion because I am. Although I’m a woman in technology and a gay woman in technology and a gay woman parent in technology, my interests do go beyond that and I would hope that I have given other people space to progress where they thought they might not have that space. So inclusiveness with age, grade boundary, professional boundary, colour, disability, I hope that I’m not deluding myself, that that is something I’m known for.

And as I said, I do try and give my time to try and make the place a bit better, so things like One Team Gov and mentoring people, that kind of thing. If I were to leave an impression of myself, I hope that that would be in it.

Angus Montgomery:
And who do you look to as a role model or who inspires you at the moment? Either within this world or outside it, I suppose.

Kit Collingwood:
Am I allowed a few?

Angus Montgomery:
Of course. Just like a dinner party thing.

Kit Collingwood:
My girlfriend would have to go on that list. One of the most amazing product people I’ve ever observed and the kindest person.

Angus Montgomery:
Just for the sake- who’s your girlfriend?

Kit Collingwood:
Kylie Havelock.

Angus Montgomery:
Kylie Havelock.

Kit Collingwood:
Yes. Yes, she’s taught me a lot about kindness and about diversion and inclusion as well and a million other things. My kids inspire me all the time. They’re not constrained by what anybody expects of them, and I love that about them. I try and learn from them and try and- they’ve made me challenge a lot of my assumptions about myself and about the world.

And then professionally, I’d always say Lara Sampson who works at the DWP who is the most consummately brilliant civil servant I have ever worked with and has remained that to this day. She wins the prize. She is incredible and inspirational.

I would always say Tom Loosemore as well who’s effectively very quietly, without anybody knowing it, mentored me for about six years without ever asking for anything in return and has quietly been responsible for several of my career moves without ever taking credit for it or asking for anything back. So given that this will be public, I’ll say publically thank you to him. He’s done a lot for me without anybody ever knowing that, so I’ll always be grateful.

Angus Montgomery:
And just finally, if there’s one piece of advice you could give to someone, so say there’s someone in your situation now going back, what was it, six years ago, kind of in a role. You were in a policy role were you were kind of thinking, “This isn’t really what I’m interested in. This isn’t giving me the empathy, the satisfaction that I want.” What advice would you give to that person that you've learned over the last seven or eight years?

Kit Collingwood:
Wow. I’d say find a hero. It’s always good to have somebody to look up to think, you know, what would so-and-so do in this situation? I think it’s always good to see a perspective that isn’t your own.

I’d say a good dose of sort of mindfulness for want of a better word, so realising where you are on the frustration versus action scale. There can be a feeling amongst some civil servants in particular that they’re so frustrated the only thing they can do is leave, and I’ve seen many people go their way and it’s not a bad thing to do at all. It’s the only thing to do for a lot of people, but there’s this tipping point and if you’re on this tipping point of, “Oh my God, I want the world to be better but I want to stay and make it better,” I’d always say contact One Team Gov because you’ll find some likeminded people as well.

But I’d also say to them, if any of those people are listening, you’re not alone. So many civil servants are frustrated. The civil service is frustrating. It will always be, but it’s the best place in the world, my belief is, and if you’re on that tipping point where you’re incredibly frustrated but believe you can do something better, it’s not just you. And again if you’re that one person in a room of 12 who’s just in the wrong room, go and find a different room and you can start to feel more normal, and there are so many lateral moves you can make to get that done and you might just start to be reinvigorated like I was.

Angus Montgomery:
And those rebels are easier to find now.

Kit Collingwood:
Very easy to find now. Yes, so Clare Moriarty is one of them and she’s got one of the toughest jobs going in government at the moment. Jeremy Heywood was one as well. He was one of the people who gave me advice, again when he didn’t have to. A very tough time for him that showed me that truly he was on the side of the revolutionaries. He wanted to see reform as well, so you can move up the pay scale and up the ladder and be a rebel as well. You can do that.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes. Kit Collingwood, thank you very much for joining us.

Kit Collingwood:
Thank you for your time.

Angus Montgomery:
Thank you. Thank you very much for joining us for that episode of the GDS podcast. I hope you enjoyed it. If you want to listen to any more of what we’re doing, then please go to wherever it is that you listen to or download your podcasts and subscribe to the GDS podcast because we’ve got lots more exciting stuff coming up this year, so we hope you’ll join us again soon. Thank you very much.

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #4 - a review of 2018

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #4 - a review of 2018

December 7, 2018

In this episode, senior writers Angus Montgomery and Sarah Stewart look back at the year at GDS.

A full transcript of the episode follows:

Angus Montgomery:
Hello, and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name’s Angus Montgomery, I’m a senior writer at GDS, and today I’m joined by Sarah Stewart, who is also a senior writer at GDS.

Sarah Stewart:
Hello, and thanks for having me.

Angus Montgomery:
It’s really great to have you here, Sarah. I mean, we spend all week sitting opposite each other across a desk and now we’re going to sit across from each other and speak into microphones.

Sarah Stewart:
I quite like the idea that I’m assuming the role of guest speaker with specialist knowledge of any one subject.

Angus Montgomery:
You are the one with the expertise here, let’s face it.
The reason that it’s me and Sarah doing this podcast… If you’ve listened to GDS podcasts before you’ll know that what we’ve done previously is, kind of, either Sarah or I have interviewed an expert speaker, so we’ve had Neil Williams on GOV.UK, Terence Eden on open standards and emerging technology, and we’ve also spoken to the GDS Women’s Network.

But, what we want to do with this podcast, because it is the final podcast of 2018, is do a look at the year in review at GDS, what GDS has done over the last year, the things it’s achieved, the things it’s launched and kind of just go back through those and our take on them, we’ve even got some audio clips from the people who were involved as well.

I think Sarah and I, because we work across GDS and our job is to help people, kind of, tell the story of their work, we’ve kind of had a ringside seat for a lot of this stuff.

GDS’s work has kind of been split, broadly, into three themes this year, and this podcast is going to split into those three themes as well. Those three themes are:

Sarah Stewart:
Transformation; collaboration and; innovation.

Angus Montgomery:
Full marks for that.

Sarah Stewart:
Thank you very much.

Angus Montgomery:
So, transformation, collaboration and innovation is, kind of, how GDS talks about its work. when we first started to use those terms, at Sprint ’18, which was the big event that we held back in May, where we, kind of, talked to the rest of government and the rest of the wider public about what we were doing. So, let’s get into it…

Oh yes, sorry, just to… Someone who did also speak at Sprint, as you well know, and you’ve worked closely with him throughout this year…

Sarah Stewart:
It’s Minister for Implementation Oliver Dowden.

Angus Montgomery:
It’s Minister for Implementation Oliver Dowden, and here’s what he had to say about us:

[Audio starts]
‘Though transformation innovation and collaboration you’ve not only saved billions of pounds across government, but you’ve changed the way people interact with government every day. What you do really matters, it really does genuinely improve people’s experience of government in their day-to-day lives.’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
Oliver Dowden there really summing up what GDS does and why it’s here, and it’s really nice to hear that sort of thing from senior backing.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, exactly. I think the really encouraging thing about having Oliver Dowden overseeing the work of GDS is that he really understands the link up between creating a modern government and involving the tech sector. We have to be honest about the limits of government, we don’t have all the answers, but what we do have, in this country, is an amazing tech sector that’s attracting billions of pounds of inward investment. We’ve got some amazing companies just literally down the road, of course we should be partnering with them. It just makes sense for us to all link up, the tech sector, the public sector, and push our digital agenda forward.

Angus Montgomery:
I think he’s been really heavily involved in GDS, particularly recently with the innovation stuff as well.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, I suppose we’ll come to that in a bit, but he’s been really behind… He announced the Innovation Strategy, I think the emerging themes from that will really address things like how we connect more with the private sector and how we focus on upskilling existing civil servants, and also policy makers so that they understand emerging tech. I was thinking about it the other day, about how if people are buying technology, so people are utilising technologies in government, those people who are buying also need to understand what those technologies do.
So, in the same way that you’d go to the doctor and say, “I’ve got this ailment” and the doctor prescribes the information and the medicine, and you expect them to know how it works as well, it’s not just going in and taking something off the shelf. So, I think that’s a really encouraging thing that’s he’s championing as well.

Angus Montgomery:
Brilliant. Top marks Oliver.

So, the first theme we’re going to discuss is transformation. We published a Transformation Strategy at the beginning of 2017, and I think 2017 and 2018 have been the years when we’ve really started to deliver against it. I think we’re now halfway through it as well?

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, that’s right.

Angus Montgomery:
Growing common components is a big thing, because I think one of the aims of the Transformation Strategy was to drive common components across government, and by common components, obviously, we mean things that can be built once and used again and again by departments, like GOV.UK Notify and GOV.UK Pay. This year has seen some really impressive examples of services using those things.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, like the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, they’re using GOV.UK Pay to help people who need to pay for emergency passports. Also, increasingly, GP surgeries are using GOV.UK Notify to remind patients of their appointments, which I really need. I mean, it’s improving efficiencies as well, because of the amount of people who don’t turn up to appointments and just that little reminder is so helpful, and it’s on your phones.

Angus Montgomery:
They always show those dire warnings in GP surgeries, don’t they, of the number people who’ve missed appointments that month. I know GP’s surgeries aren’t over resourced a lot of the time, so it’s a real drain on them if that happens. I think things that will prevent that from happening are amazing.

Sarah Stewart:
The really cool thing about these common components, and especially Notify, is that it’s really meeting people where they’re at. People are looking at their phones, people spend so much time on their phones it makes sense to have that reminder to your phone. It’s just efficient and it just works. So, I’m not surprised that take-up has been so incredible.

Angus Montgomery:
One of the other things that’s quite exciting is because a lot of these common components are reaching maturity now, like they’ve been around for a year or so, but what’s starting to happen is you’re starting to see services using them all together. I think in the Disclosure and Barring Service are one of the first people to do that, and we’ve got some audio:

[Audio starts]
‘We’ve relied heavily on GaaP components. We’re the first service to integrate with three of the GaaP components all at once.’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
There you go, the first service to integrate all three GaaP components at one. So, I think that’s really exciting, seeing these things not used in isolation but seeing whole services built on these things as well.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, and that’s been a huge emphasis this year, end-to-end service design, and if you can incorporate those common components… It just makes sense, doesn’t it, going offline and online might be an option for your particular service, but it’s nice to have that option to integrate more if you need them to.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes, and making it easy for the teams as well. I think if you’re starting to use Pay and Notify platform as a service you, as a developer working on that team, have got all this stuff just to hand that you can build a service really quickly around. That was, kind of, always the government’s platform vision, and it’s really amazing to see that starting to happen.

Sarah Stewart:
I can’t remember where I was, actually, I went to do some filming this year and think it might be with DVSA, but they talked about how it’s not just having common components that you can just take off the shelf and your relationship with GDS is done, there is a continued relationship. They invite feedback and they want to support you in your use of it. So, I think we’ve done quite a lot of work in terms of… Maybe helping isn’t the right word, but like guiding people and being a supportive friend of take-up and how they’re going to integrate it into their systems.

Angus Montgomery:
Again, that is, to me, exactly that. That’s one of the reason these things are so amazing, is because they’re designed and built for government, but you’re not just designing and building something and handing it over to a team and saying, “Go ahead and use that.” You have a relationship. If you’re using Pay you have a relationship with that Pay team, you can give your feedback on it and they can make the product better based on your feedback. It’s this symbiotic thing which is really cool.
The other thing that we should probably mention, which happened, I think, a couple of weeks ago, is that GOV.UK Notify won a civil service award, or the team that build it.

Sarah Stewart:
Wowser, that’s really cool.

Angus Montgomery:
Wowsers indeed. A big hats off to that team, who are awesome. They won an award, I think, for operational delivery. But, basically, the award recognised the work that that team has done, not just to develop a product but also to support it and work with government services to make sure that Notify is a great thing to use, so that’s really cool. But one of the things we’ve started to do a lot more this year is work more closely with local authorities. What is it about local authorities? Why should we work closely with them?

Sarah Stewart:
I suppose, it’s because they’re the ones who are delivering user-focused services, and because the needs of the people that they’re dealing with are so complex, and the services that they use are so complex as well. So, of course it makes sense to help them simplify how they’re interacting and give them the tools that make that process a lot more straightforward and a lot more efficient.

Angus Montgomery:
That’s brilliant. A lot of the challenges that the government has had that GDS has been working on, those are replicated in local authorities and, like you say, they’re the ones that are, kind of, delivering a lot of these services, like blue badges and collecting bins and things, the things that, kind of, really rile you up if they’re not done properly. So, GDS being able to get involved in that is really exciting.
I think there’s a clip from one of the local authorities we’ve been working with, and they use the Digital Marketplace, that’s Hackney Borough Council, and they’re doing some really exciting stuff as well.

[Audio starts]
‘One of my personal favourite projects that we’ve used Digital Marketplace for in the last year was a piece of work to examine what the opportunity is to use digital to improve the recruitment and retention of foster carers, which was incredibly valuable for the council and for our residents, but also could develop a true partnership as well as long at some longer-term opportunities to use technology very differently.’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
That’s Matthew Cain who’s, I think, head of digital at Hackney Borough Council, and that’s a really interesting example of the kind of thing a local authority does. The recruitment of foster carers and using digital, and in that case a digital marketplace, to improve something like that is really cool.

Sarah Stewart:
The other thing that’s going to support that, so it’s not just an ad-hoc relationship that we’re having with local authorities, is the publication of the Local Digital Declaration as well, which shows our commitment to working with local authorities across the whole of the public sector. I think it has 100 signatories on it now?

Angus Montgomery:
I think there are 100 signatures.

So, we’re one of the co-publishers, I think with the Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government and various local authorities, and there are something like 100 signatories already. Yes, it’s a commitment from all the signatories that they will follow these principles of digital development, which are the things that you would hope they’re talking about, like focusing on user needs, using the right technology, and all that sort of thing.

Yes, you’re right, it’s really interesting. I think the world of local authorities is so big, there are so many and they’re delivering so many different, often quite small and challenging, services. It, kind of, seems like a world that is really hard to get a handle on. I think that it’s really interesting to see GDS approaching that in a kind of structured way, through the Local Digital Declaration, but also giving really tangible things that can help, like common components. It’s amazing to see the progress that has already happened with it as well.

Sarah Stewart:
Just on that, I used to work for a charity and when people were interacting with their local authorities it wasn’t just the case that they were going just for one thing, they had a host of different needs that needed to be addressed, and local authorities are the people who are servicing those needs and making sure that all of those things get done.

Angus Montgomery:
Also, 2018 was a year in which GDS launched quite a few things and updated quite a few things as well.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, like the GDS Design System.

Angus Montgomery:
The GDS Design System, which I think is really… This appeals to the geek side of me because this is, basically, a collection of all the patterns and components that a designer or a front-end developer and, for the most part, would use to create a government service. So, you’ve got things there telling you about how to design a button, which typeface to use, which colours to use-

Sarah Stewart:
Why is that important?

Angus Montgomery:
It’s important because, in much the same way as GaaP components, it’s about making it easier for those teams to use something so that they don’t have to design their own button style or design their own dropdown menu, or whatever. There is one that they can just pull the code from and put it into their service.

Also, then it provides consistency. So, if all the government services are using the same things… And the things in the design system are heavily user researched, so, it’s the kind of GDS principle of, like, “Do the hard work for service teams, but also provide a consistent experience across all things.” If you want to lose an hour or two then go and have a mess about in it, because there’s something really cool stuff to find and look at.

Sarah Stewart:
The geek emerges.

Angus Montgomery:
Exactly.

Sarah Stewart:
It’s been a year of launching and relaunching at GDS, so we introduced a new spend controls process and we’re rewriting the service standard, which you know more about than I do, Angus.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes, the service standard is really exciting, and we’ve blogged quite a bit about this already, I think Stephen Gill and Lou Downe, who are both working on it, have written quite a lot. The Digital Service Standard has been around for quite some time, and was initially developed, primarily, to help develop digital touchpoints and digital services, and is focused on that. The idea of the rewrite is to help government and teams within government to think about whole end-to-end services, what that means and how they can help the user do something from the very start of a service to the very end of it.

It’s going to be really exciting and interesting to see what that means and how that works. There are quite a lot of blog posts about it as well, if you should go to the GDS blog to find out more, as you should do for all of the things that we’ve discussed.

Sarah Stewart:
Excellent plug.

Angus Montgomery:
Excellent plug... there is plenty of amazing writing about all of these things, even if I do say so myself!

Sarah Stewart:
I’ll tell you what else is exciting.

Angus Montgomery:
What else is exciting, Sarah?

Sarah Stewart:
GOV.UK is exciting.

Angus Montgomery:
GOV.UK is never not exciting.

Sarah Stewart:
It’s been a big year for the team behind GOV.UK because they’ve been doing some super-cool work with organising their content. So, they’ve been doing supervised machine learning to organise all of the content on GOV.UK, or in certain sections they’re organising their content. That means that we can do cool things, like voice activation.

And the example is, if you speak into a Google Voice system and say, “How old do I need to be to drive a car?” the information that is surfaced is GOV.UK content, and this content is the best, it’s the most authoritative.

Angus Montgomery:
That is amazing. I think what is really amazing is, like you say, they sorted out the structure of the sites and then they did the fixing the basics, solving hard problems and all that stuff that GDS says all the time. This is a really good example of that. Like, sorting out the content, which was a really hard and a really challenging thing to do, but having done that they can do really exciting whizzy stuff on it. We were discussing the word whizzy just yesterday, I think.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, the amount of times…

Angus Montgomery:
But, it is whizzy. I think you said it was a public-school boy word, which I’m pretty-

Sarah Stewart:
Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you.

Angus Montgomery:
No offence taken.

But, it is whizzy stuff, like voice activation and like the step-by-step work that they’re doing as well, which kind of takes all the content involved in a particular service, like you used the learning to drive example, and puts that all in order for the user to be able to navigate really quickly and easily, and to understand where the are in the process.

Sarah Stewart:
It’s so brilliant, because when you think about things, life impacting things, like learning how to drive, it can be so daunting. If you can just shine a light in the darkness and say, “Look, these are the eight steps that you need to get your driving license, let’s tackle step one. Let’s do it all in the same journey, and at least you can tick that off.” How amazing is that? You don’t need to rootle around the internet, you don’t need to Google the internet, that’s another phrase we’ve been using a lot recently, to find the answers. It’s just all in one place. It’s bliss.

Angus Montgomery:
It is, and it’s great. It has been a really big year for GOV.UK and it’s really amazing to see them developing this stuff and the new stuff that’s happening.

Plug time as well, if you want to find out more about this, we did a podcast with Neil Williams, who, up until recently, was head of GOV.UK, he left in September, I think it was, to go and be head of digital at Croydon Council, but before he left we recorded a podcast with him in which he said this:

[Audio starts]
‘Absolutely, we’re iterating widely again, I’d say, so it’s back to that feeling of early GOV.UK, where we’re actually able to turn ideas into working software and working product relatively quickly, again. So, some of the stuff we’re doing now is actually greenfield stuff, again, we’re back to a lot of the ideas we had, way back when in the early days of GDS, around making the publishing system really intuitive and giving data intelligence to publishers so that they can understand how services are performing and see where to prioritise and get that really rich insight about how their stuff, as a department, is working for users.’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
So, yes, we talked a lot about transformation, and it’s time to talk…

Sarah Stewart:
About collaboration.

Angus Montgomery:
About collaboration.

Sarah Stewart:
What do we mean by collaboration?

Angus Montgomery:
What do we mean? Well, collaboration, basically, means working together, which is the thing-

Sarah Stewart:
I do actually know the answer to this, sorry, in case the audience don’t think I don’t know what collaborative means.

Angus Montgomery:
Let’s just be clear, this is an interview trope which is to ask a question that you know the answer to in order to illicit a comment from the person that you’re talking to. Just because we’re asking each other these things doesn’t mean that…

Sarah, tell me about GDS and what it does… We do actually know what this means, or I think we know what this means, anyway.

Collaboration, in order to answer your question, Sarah, basically means working together, which is, of course, what GDS has done since the very beginning. So, GDS was set up to work with and across government to help them develop digital services, transform what they’re doing and make things better for users. We can’t do this stuff unless we are collaborating, unless we are working together.

We mentioned Sprint earlier as well, which is the big event that we held back in May, where GDS and other people from across movement talked about the really cool things that they were doing, and there was a strong collaboration angle throughout that.

And there were a lot of really good case studies, interesting case studies of work that was going on. After the day we were looking back on Twitter and talking to people who’d been at the event and they were saying, “This is one that made me cry, and I didn’t expect to,” “I went to this workshop, I came out and I was so emotional that I was weeping.” It was a workshop about open standards, and this was the case study that they used:

[Audio starts]
‘Hands off. He’s got a belt on, get his belt. Up… Okay. In you come, fella. Alright.’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
So, for the benefit of people who obviously couldn’t see what was happening, because that was a video clip and we played it on a podcast, which is an audio medium, so it was quite a lot of indiscrete splashing, but what was actually happening there was that was someone being rescued-

Sarah Stewart:
A real person.

Angus Montgomery:
That was a field video-clip, or however you describe it, from the RNLI, rescuing someone from the River Thames. The reason that was played in an open standards workshop is open standards is super important when it comes to things like emergency services, because you might get various emergency services, like the police or RNLI or the Maritime and Coastguard Agency responding to various incidents at the same time, and they need to be able to share information about those incidents really, really quickly.

Sarah Stewart:
The profound takeaway from this is, obviously, people’s lives are being saved, but the launch time for lifeboats is reduced from 10-15 minutes to under 2 minutes.

Angus Montgomery:
That’s incredible.

Sarah Stewart:
If you can think of what can happen, even in two minutes, to someone who’s in the water for that long…

Angus Montgomery:
Yes, falling in the Thames in December, and you don’t want to be in there for 10-15 minutes. So it’s amazing.

I mean, obviously this got people really emotional because you’re seeing a video of someone, literally, getting pulled out of the Thames, and the work that you have done to develop and open standard or to develop a common system for sharing information, which seems like a really abstract thing, but then you see the real-world example of this stuff and that’s really amazing.

Sarah Stewart:
We spoke to Terence Eden, who’s the open standards lead at GDS, about open standards, and if you want to find out more listen to that podcast. There are some things that you think are so mundane, in a theoretical sense, but the real-world practical outcome is so so important. So, I highly recommend you listen to that.

Angus Montgomery:
Yes, another plug for the podcast, which is a good thing.

Also, one of the big things, staying on this collaboration theme, that we’ve been doing is helping government work together and build capability through things, like the GDS Academy, which has gone from strength to strength this year.

Sarah Stewart:
There have been some big milestones. We’re nearing 10,000, would we call them students? Colleagues?

Angus Montgomery:
Students/colleagues/civil servants/people trained through the-

Sarah Stewart:
Those with a thirst to learn. We hit almost 10,000 who have passed through the GDS academy and about 1,000 of those students have been through the Agile foundation course.

Angus Montgomery:
This is really important work because it’s showing people the opportunities that a digital government brings for their skills and capabilities, and for their jobs as well. I mean, people are training in new and interesting jobs because of the GDS Academy, and that’s really exciting.

Sarah Stewart:
What I think is super-cool about it is that people can feel left behind when things move forward and when people move from different processes. Digital can be quite a daunting thing and something that they feel like might be a stumbling block to them or might prevent them from continuing their work in the civil service, but what the academy does is say, “Actually, we can support you in your knowledge and we can support you in your growth, and if you want to learn about all these really cool and interesting things that we’re doing, and the ways of working that are open to you as well.”
So, we’re not just abandoning people who don’t have those digital expertise, we’re saying, “Here is a foundation course that will help you get up to speed and give you the confidence to go and bring it back to your departments and deploy it.”

Angus Montgomery:
You’re right. I think one of the things about digital, and not just in government, I suppose, but in general, is that it can be seen as quite a clique-y thing, it’s like, “If you understand this digital thing then you’re part of it, but if you don’t then,” you know, as you say, “You might get left behind.” The idea that we’re, through the GDS Academy, able to bring people into this is really cool, and makes it not a clique-y thing but make it a big, kind of, community, potentially, of civil servants, and that’s really cool.

Like we say, we’re approaching 10,000 students, we’ve got new academy classrooms in the GDS building, I think just the floor below us as we speak.

Sarah Stewart:
It looks very swish.

Angus Montgomery:
Which does look very swish, indeed.

They did a pop-up in Canada as well, which was quite good.

Sarah Stewart:
Did they?

Angus Montgomery:
Yes, they went over there and spoke to the Canadian government about what they’d done at the GDS Academy, and after that the Canadian government set up their own. So, there you go…

And it’s been an exciting year for GOV.UK Verify as well, the government’s online identity assurance programme, because the standards and guidelines which currently underpin the way Verify works are now being opened up to the private sector to build on. And what this means is that in principle, the same digital identity platform that helps you check your state pension could in future also help you check your savings account too and other things that you do in your kind of day to day non-government life so that’s really exciting as well.

So... we’ve done transformation…

Sarah Stewart:
We’ve done collaboration.

Angus Montgomery:
Let’s move onto innovation.

Sarah Stewart:
Which I feel is my specialist subject. Do you want to do the music?

Angus Montgomery:
What? Is this innovation music? Oh…

Sarah Stewart:
No, that was Mastermind.

Angus Montgomery:
Sorry, that reference just went straight over my head. Sarah Stewart…

Sarah Stewart:
...on innovation. So, 2018 has been a big year for innovation, and not just in this government but in governments all across the world. So, in summer, I’m sure you heard, that the French government announced a £1.5 billion investment in research into artificial intelligence. The Singaporean government, or actually the prime minister said, that innovation was an obsession for them, not just an interest, an obsession. Countries like Norway are doing some really interesting things, actually, the prime minister launched this programme calling it a kind of Tinder…

Angus Montgomery:
Nice.

Sarah Stewart:
So the government is helping clean tech industries reach out to international markets.

Angus Montgomery:
To literally hook up with those markets.

Sarah Stewart:
Exactly. Oh God…

But, what we’re interested in is the UK, sorry, let me bring you back. Let’s land at Heathrow and tell you about what’s happening in this country. So earlier this year we published a survey of all emerging tech activity across government, so we know the extent and where innovative activity with emerging tech is happening. So, we know, for example, like we mentioned earlier, that GOV.UK is using supervised machine learning, as is the UK Hydrographic Office, and that BEIS, DFID and Defra are using big data and sensors to improve agricultural yield and protect crops.

Angus Montgomery:
So, lots of cool stuff happening, but I think one of the things that we talk about a lot that’s really interesting is that all this work going on in isolation is great and really exciting, but for it to have an effect you kind of need to have an overarching strategy, you need to be able to do it in the right way you need to be able to make sure that you’re not just chasing after the latest shiny thing…

Sarah Stewart:
Whizzy things.

Angus Montgomery:
Whizzy things, to make it a theme. Sarah, you interviewed Terence Eden, as you’ve already mentioned, for the podcast that we published a couple of months ago, and Terence had some words about this as well:

[Audio starts]
‘How do we make sure that government doesn’t just grab at the new fashionable tech, because it’s new and fashionable?’
‘It’s a good question. The author William Gibson has a beautiful quote, which is ‘The future is already here, it’ just not very equally distributed yet.’ That’s not really the case. The future isn’t here. We’ve got glimpses that if we can build this huge dataset, then we will be able to artificial intelligence the blockchain into the cloud and magic will happen. Yes, you’re right, people just go a little starry eyed…’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
So, Sarah, how do we avoid people being all starry-eyed and just chasing after the latest whizzy new technology?

Sarah Stewart:
We use a strategy, Angus, which is exactly what the minister announced after the publication of the survey. So, it was good that we had a landscape and we had a much better understanding of the emerging tech that was being used across government, but we needed to round it up with a strategy. To ensure that we’re moving forward in a clear and sensible way the strategy was the thing.

So, GDS is leading this, but the minister has been attending quite a few engagement meetings to get the expertise from tech leaders, academics and practitioners in the field about what this strategy needs to address, because we don’t want to get into the situation where, in five years’ time or ten years’ time, we’re playing catch-up. So, I think that’s going to be published in the spring.

Angus Montgomery:
Brilliant, I look forward to it and look forward to seeing what we have to say in that.
One more thing, we talked about this earlier on but the idea of the academy and GDS as a whole, upskilling and helping build capability across the civil service and digital, we’ve been taking that into emerging technologies as well, through the pilot Emerging Technology Development Programme. Sarah, you spoke again to Terence Eden about this, because I think he’s one of the first people who went through the pilot.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, that’s right. The idea is that there are going to be people who are skilled up and specialists in emerging technologies, so they can go into departments across government to help other teams and spreading the word. The pilot was run earlier this year, and you’re right, Terence Eden was on there, and here’s what he thought of it:

[Audio starts]
‘I think that’s what the Emerging Technology Development Programme is about, is making sure that civil servants can code, making sure that they understand how they would build an AI system, understand what the ethics are, learn about what the reasons for and against using a bit of technology like distributed ledgers are, because otherwise we end up with people just buying stuff which isn’t suitable.’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
So, super important stuff. Just one final, but super important, part of the innovation work that GDS has been doing over the last year is the GovTech Catalyst Challenge.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, that’s right. This is a £20m fund which is designed to incentivise tech companies to help the public sector with challenges that they may face.

Angus Montgomery:
So, two really cool things about this is it’s dealing with really interesting public sector challenges, like how do you deal with loneliness and isolation in rural areas, or how do you help track a waste chain across its whole process or how do you help to keep firefighters safe when they’re out on emergency calls? But, what it’s also doing is bringing in the interesting emerging technologies, so things like artificial intelligence or location sensing or wearable tech and, kind of, using them on these specific examples, but by doing that it’s proving the value to the wider public sector as well.
So, if you use that emerging technology in one particular incident or in one particular incidence you might then find other applications for it in the public sector. So, it’s kind of like a testing ground for stuff as well, which is really exciting.

I think what is really cool about this is that the GovTech Catalyst Fund has been going now for some time and, as you mentioned, there have been a number of challenges launched. We’re starting to see potential where it could tackle real issues, like I mentioned earlier about keeping firefighters safe.

Sarah Stewart:
The other really cool thing as well is that it’s a London team, so the team is based in London, but the challenges that are coming in are not solely London based challenges, they’ve come from all over the country as well.

Angus Montgomery:
Let’s hear from Wales.

[Audio starts]
‘If I was to wear the tracking device and I was committed to a building it would make me feel safer, because I know that if any of my other communications fail or if I’m needing assistance then they’re going to know where I am.’
[Audio ends]

Angus Montgomery:
So that’s Mid and West Wales Fire Service, who have a GovTech Challenge competition out for the moment, for tracking for firefighters when they’re out on emergency calls.

Sarah Stewart:
The other beautiful thing, if I can call it beautiful, if I can call boosting the economy beautiful, is that it gives small, kind of, nimble SMEs a chance to do business with government. So, it’s not just monopolised by massive companies, it’s really helping the burgeoning GovTech sector to grow, and this is one very tangible way in which is happening.

Angus Montgomery:
It’s helping the right people work on the right problems, which is what it’s all about.
That was innovation. So, we’ve done it all.

Sarah Stewart:
Yes, we’ve done it.

Angus Montgomery:
We’ve done transformation, collaboration and innovation, and that was an overview of 2018 at GDS.
What was your favourite moment of 2018, Sarah?

Sarah Stewart:
Good question. I think it was April, when the late Jeremy Heywood, came in to talk to the organisation. I was impressed by the amount of stuff that he knew because his portfolio must’ve been enormous. To know in very precise detail exactly what’s happening in every part of government was really inspiring, not only from a digital perspective, but also as a civil servant. You just think, “Wow, that’s colossal intellect deployed just brilliantly.”

Angus Montgomery:
Yes I think I’d agree with you about when Lord Heywood came in. Like you said, he was such an impressive speaker and showed such a massive intellect, but also a real interest and passion about what GDS was doing. Like you say, his brief was so massive that he would’ve had to have a handle on so many different parts of government, for him to come in and be really interested, engaged and talking to individual people and talking to the organisation as a whole was super-impressive. So, I think that was definitely a highlight for me.

I think the other highlight was something we’ve talked about quite a lot, which was Sprint, which was super hard work, I think, for everyone involved, but really amazing and really amazing to see people at GDS and people from across government get the opportunity to talk about the work that they’ve been doing and see the reception that that got. Having a workshop about open standards that left people in tears and things like that were really amazing.

Sarah Stewart:
For the right reasons.

Angus Montgomery:
So that was really cool.

Next year, what are you most looking forward to?

Sarah Stewart:
Spring, because in spring the Innovation Strategy will be published.

Angus Montgomery:
Ah, the strategy.

Sarah Stewart:
The strategy… How about you?

Angus Montgomery:
For me, I guess, it’s a bit of a cop out answer, but more of the same. I think what I really value about GDS is that there are lots of organisations that use words like transformation, collaboration and innovation, and other words like that, but use them in quite intangible ways, and just don’t really deliver against them. I think what we’ve proved over the last year is that we are delivering loads of really tangible, amazing things.

There are things that we and other parts of the government have done this year that are changing people’s lives. That, to me, is the reason GDS exists. We talk to the talk but we’re delivering this stuff as well, we’re actually doing stuff, and more tangible things. The Innovation Strategy is a part of that, obviously, and seeing tangible outcomes from that, more people using common components, more services that have been transformed in a way that it’s going to help people go about their lives and make people’s lives better.

I think just the stuff that we’ve done over this last year has been brilliant, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of its next year.

So, that wraps up 2018 and the 2018 year in review podcast.

Sarah Stewart:
What a year it’s been.

Angus Montgomery:
What a year it’s been.

Sarah Stewart:
Wait. We’ve forgotten to mention the most exciting thing that’s going to happen in 2019.

Angus Montgomery:
What’s that?

Sarah Stewart:
The continuation of the GDS podcast series.

Angus Montgomery:
Of course. As I mentioned before, this is the fourth episode of the GDS podcasts that we’ve done, and we’ve got plenty more exciting ones planned. So, if you’ve enjoyed this one and you enjoyed the previous ones that we’ve done, then go to wherever it is that you listen to your podcasts and subscribe to the GDS podcasts because we’ve got a ton more exciting stuff happening next year.

Sarah Stewart:
Oh yes.

Angus Montgomery:
Oh yes.Thank you very much for listening. Thank you for joining me, Sarah.

Sarah Stewart:
Oh, you’re welcome.

Angus Montgomery:
And goodbye.

Sarah Stewart:
Goodbye.

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #3 - an interview with the GDS Women’s Network

Government Digital Service Podcast Episode #3 - an interview with the GDS Women’s Network

December 3, 2018

In this episode, we talk to Liz Lutgendorff and Rosa Fox from the GDS Women's Network.

A full transcript of the episode follows:

Angus Montgomery:
Hello, and welcome to the third edition of the government digital service podcast. My name’s Angus Montgomery and I’m a senior writer at GDS, and for this episode of the podcast we're going to be talking to Liz Lutgendorff and Rosa Fox from the GDS Women’s Network, so thank you very much both for joining me.

Rosa Fox:
Thank you for having us.

Angus Montgomery:
Before I start, if I could just ask you, because we're going to go on to talk about the Women’s Network and what it does and why it was set up, and why it exists in GDS, and we’re loosely talking about it because 2018 is the centenary of women suffrage in the UK, and in fact I think on the 21st November 1918 women could be elected to parliament for the first time, so I think in February there was universal suffrage, or women suffrage in 2018, in November women could be elected to parliament, so we’re hoping that this will be released at about that date so that’s why we’re here.

But before we go into that, I was hoping you could tell me a little bit about yourselves and how you ended up at GDS and what you do. Liz, if you could let me know, how long have you been at GDS and what do you do here?

Liz Lutgendorff:
I’ve been here almost seven years now, so I am like a veteran of GDS.

Angus Montgomery:
Since the beginning.

Liz Lutgendorff:
Almost the beginning, so I’m pre-GDS but not pre-GOV.UK, I think, so I was brought on in January 2012. Originally I was looking at this site called Business Link, if anyone remembers it, to analyse the user needs to add them to what was then the beta of GOV.UK. I was with the content team for about four or five years, and then I worked with the GOV.UK programme as a whole, trying to make us more efficient and use data better, and then January this year I moved to Verify to do the same thing, so looking at data analysis, how the programme works, things like that.

Angus Montgomery:
Cool, and Rosa, what do you do and how long have you been at GDS?

Rosa Fox:
Yes, so I’ve been at GDS for nearly three years, and I work as a software developer. I was on GOV.UK for two years doing mostly back end development in a language called Ruby and I then joined Verify, maybe about six months ago, so, yes, me and Liz are now on the same programme, and, yes, working in Java on the Verify project, so, yes, it’s good.

Angus Montgomery:
What was your background, what were you doing before you came to GDS and to government?

Rosa Fox:
Worked in quite a small Ruby on Rails agency previously, and then before that various jobs, mostly in small tech companies, and then before that I was studying my degree which was half music half computer science.

Angus Montgomery:
So sort of background in the wider private sector tech industry?

Rosa Fox:
Yes.

Angus Montgomery:
Liz, how about you?

Liz Lutgendorff:
Broadly the same. I was working for a start-up and before that I was working for a company that did accessible formats. It was a translation company but also did accessible format, so kind of just that, and then before that I was in Canada and I was in university.

Angus Montgomery:
Cool. You’re both obviously involved in the Women’s Network at GDS. Do you have formal roles in it, what do you do for the network?

Rosa Fox:  
I am a co-chair of the Women’s Network. In January we re-launched the network, so me and a colleague called Amanda Diamond, who is now on loan to ACAS, but she was really instrumental in re-launching the network with me. On Amanda’s departure Nicky Zachariou and Laura Flannery have joined me as co-chairs. As a part of that, as a part of the big re-launch, which I can go into more detail later, we created five working groups, and we have people involved in a lot of the different groups, so Liz is involved in events mostly-

Liz Lutgendorff:
And the pay transparency.

Rosa Fox:  
Yes, and pay transparency.  

Angus Montgomery:
Okay, cool, so very active roles both of you.

Rosa Fox:
Yes.

Angus Montgomery:
Why does the Women’s Network exist and what’s its purpose, what’s it there to do?

Liz Lutgendorff:
I’m trying to remember back to when we started it, but I think it was still at Aviation House, were you here when it started or had it already existed?

Rosa Fox:
I read that it started in 2014, so I wasn’t here but you probably were.

Liz Lutgendorff:
I think it was generally that GDS had been growing larger. We were becoming more – moving more from being a kind of scrappy start-up to actually having formal things, and how we as employees improve the organisation. I think a lot of us were actually becoming permanent employees rather than contractors as well. I remember we had by the old purple sofas, so like we don’t have meeting rooms as normal, and we just kind of got together and was like, “Do we want to do this thing?” Everyone was like, “Yes, we should do this thing.”

It started as I think as a lot of just email, talking about things that were happening, not really any huge, formal structure that we have now, and then over time it become more formalised. We were like, “What do we want? What kinds of goals do we want to achieve?” And so we did some more events. We weren’t really quite active in changing policy yet, that’s come more with the formal re-launch

Angus Montgomery:
Do you remember, was there a particular spark or a catalyst that led to this happening?

Liz Lutgendorff:
I’m not sure. I think there are other people who recognised that there was a gap, that we didn’t have one. I wasn’t really involved, I just remember it happening and being at the group. I think it was just we didn’t have it and we thought there were things that we could improve. We recognised the fact that we had far fewer female developers, a lot of the technical roles were male dominated with only like maybe one or two people who were women in senior levels and things like that. Our SM team was generally quite male heavy I think at that time, it’s gotten better in recent months and years.

Yes, it was mainly a recognition that we didn’t have this and we recognised the imbalance in the workplace at the time. There were several changes quite early on I think, or maybe not early on but under Stephen Foreshew-Cain, our second director, we went to having female representation on every interview panel, which I think the people team have stats that show that that actually increased the amount of, at least people accepting job offers, or giving job offers I think it was, and then as well as making the commitment of not to speak at events that are male dominated, so making sure that women are represented on panel discussions or in the conference in general.

It was quite nice to have that commitment quite early on from our senior management to improve women’s opportunity in these panels as well, so putting women forward to speak at GDS events, rather than having the same people who may have previously spoken anyway and don’t really need the kind of experience or profile raising, so that was quite nice, that was fairly early on in the development of the network I think by engaging with SM team.

Angus Montgomery:
Did you find SM, senior management team, and leadership, did you find that they were quite receptive to this idea of having a women’s network, and was the organisation receptive as well?

Liz Lutgendorff:
Yes. In general I think GDS is quite acceptant of most networks, if not all networks, so it’s good, but especially under Stephen I think it was – action happened as a result of it which was really nice.

Angus Montgomery:
Rosa, as someone who joined GDS when the Women’s Network had been set up and existed, what do you remember when you first came across it and what you thought of it?

Rosa Fox:
Yes, so I suppose software development, it is very male dominated, and I suppose on a lot of my teams I was often the only woman, so when I heard that there was a Women’s Network I kind of – I felt even though the guys on my team were lovely and fortunately I didn’t experience any harassment or discrimination, but sometimes if you’re struggling or, you know, you kind of want to be around people that you can relate to. I don’t know, it made me feel a bit more comfortable knowing that I had more of a support group there.

When I found out about the Women’s Network, I think it was probably through the inspirational speaker series, so I think that’s how I probably heard that it was in existence and, yes, and then I started going to meetings and things from there.

Angus Montgomery:
Had you ever come across anything similar in other roles, in your jobs before GDS?

Rosa Fox:
Not so much because I worked at quite small companies. Outside of work I co-organise something called Code Bar, which is free weekly coding workshops for people underrepresented in the tech industry. Although in a work capacity I hadn’t I’d done a lot of diversity related community stuff outside of work, so in terms of having a supportive network of people and building that and being involved in that it was quite a big part of my life, but to actually have it in work wasn’t something that I’d had before, as such, but I think that was just because I’d worked at quite small places.

Angus Montgomery:
What’s it like, because I think I probably joined you, yes, about the same time as you and had a similar-ish background, in that I’d worked in smaller organisations in the private sector, and to me one of the really notable things about coming to GDS was the fact that these networks existed but the fact that they were so active, and it was really inescapable that these kinds of networks existed and this diversity existed, and that was really amazing and something that just really stuck with me.

I remember my first few days just seeing things like rainbow flags all over the place and stuff like that. Having come from an environment that I thought was quite inclusive to one that was really, really obviously inclusive was really amazing. Did you find something similar, or how do you feel about-?

Rosa Fox:
Yes, I think it helps a lot to just be very vocal about what is acceptable and what you want and the kind of culture that you want to have. For example, we have lots of posters that we put all over the walls and things just to try and be like, “We’re here, we’re present.” I think the more that you make your values known then the easier it is to call out when something isn’t right. That is still difficult to do even with everything that we have, and that is something that we’re still working on improving, but I think ultimately knowing that we’re creating somewhere where people should feel comfortable to be themselves and feel included is really important, so I think it’s good to shout it from the roof tops and try and make sure everyone is-

Angus Montgomery:
Again, one of the things that struck me is the amount of, like you say shouting through the rooftops, but the amount of energy that you need to have to keep that going as well, like it’s really important to continue to be really, really vocal about this stuff. Liz, is that something that you found, kind of having been involved in the network since the beginning? It’s not that you can't just do this thing and then let it go; you’ve kind of got to keep going with it and got to keep really vocal.

Liz Lutgendorff:
I would say anyone listening in any capacity, I get involved with so many things because I’m generally a person who will just do them, I will get involved and I will be an active person and so this isn’t the only network I’m in, for example, but the problem is that networks live and die by the people who get involved, and having the umbrella is great but you still need the individuals to do the planning, do the organisation.

I think there’s a difference between joining and thing and you’re like, “There’s this thing, and that’s wonderful and I’ll participate and go to the things,” but it takes an extra level of personal courage and political capital to be, “I’m also going to be the annoying person who raises the thing that has upset the group,” and being that front person to say, “This wasn’t appropriate,” or putting on a controversial talk if we want to do that, or something like that.

And again, I think when it ebbs and flows is when people have left and were doing that role and there’s a vacuum to replace it, or you’re just really busy, work in GDS ebbs and flows as well, and so if you feel you have the time and energy and you’re not afraid of doing that, like get involved, we need you, we always need you. Don’t feel like you’re going to step on people’s toes. Just say, “I’d really like to help.” What would you like me to do? This is what I’m interested in.” They will love you for it.

No one will think you’re butting in or being mean or trying to take over, it’s we just need the help. We’re all working every day, we have holidays, we have good days and bad days and so anyone who can pick up the slack is completely 100% absolutely welcome to get involved.

Rosa Fox:
It does take courage. Some of the issues that we deal with are – they can be emotionally draining, but we just do what we can to support each other. You have to think back to the suffragettes, deeds not words. As a community they got together and they fought for change and they got it, so just keep going.

Angus Montgomery:
You mentioned that it’s challenging, and obviously it takes a lot of energy, but you’re seeing change because you are – things are changing because the network exists and that must be hugely rewarding, do you get that feeling as well and is that what keeps you going in a sense?

Liz Lutgendorff:
Yes, I definitely think from being here seven years ago that GDS in different ways has gotten better and worse. Worse in the sense like it’s not as small as it was so you don’t feel involved in every decision, sometimes you don’t know where things come from, sometimes you don’t know who these people are because they’re on a different floor and you’ve never met them, but in others ways it’s become much better.

I think the hiring practices have gotten a lot more slicker. We definitely have more women involved in the workplace, and in senior positions. We have now the time to do the network things. I think at the very beginning it was just like, “Let’s get stuff over the line, oh my God,” so busy, so stressful, and so it’s mellowed in the sense that we have the time, people aren’t expected to be heroes and just constantly deliver and deliver and deliver.

So in that way I think it’s a much better workplace, especially for people who want to be involved in something but have kids, or have caring commitments, or are reservists, or whatever, that you don’t feel like you’re letting the team down if you can't spend 100% time delivering the thing, you can take that time out to help make the workplace better. I think on aggregate it has become better.

Rosa Fox:
Yes, and I would say it is so rewarding. For example, one of the things that we’ve done is a break into public speaking workshop, and so when people sign up… So originally it was for the Women’s Network, now it’s for anyone underrepresented in tech, and when people register they fill out a form and they talk about what holds you back from public speaking, what are your worries, what are your fears. It’s really sad to see the responses and it seems like, “I’m worried I don’t have anything interesting to say. I’m scared that I will completely freeze when I get on stage.” All the worries that people have about public speaking, but when people turn up, the women are so talented, they’ve got so many amazing stories.

I think what kind of world do we live in where these people have been told that they don’t have anything to say, so to see people go from…And it’s not their ability that’s the problem, it’s the lack of confidence, and to see people go from these fears to then to see them present at the end and go on to speak at conferences and do all these things, and I think having underrepresented people out there speaking, having a voice, is so important and it’s so inspirational to others as well. Things like that I find really, yes, really inspiring.

Liz Lutgendorff:
I was just thinking about GDS I think, and it’s still present, it was present in the beginning and it’s still present now, is that everyone wants to see the best of people and so, again, the getting involved in public speaking, you can go there knowing that they’re going to be supportive and no one’s going to laugh or anything. They’re there because they genuinely have either struggled themselves, they want to help people, and that’s the same ethos across GDS, that everyone wants the best out of everyone, and they want to help them get there.

Coming to work for GDS must be lovely for some people because I know coming from another job that you don’t have that, right, it’s kind of like it’s a terrible workplace, not everyone hates each other but there are cliques and stuff like that, and it’s genuinely amazing to have such support here and I think, I don’t if it’s unique, I don’t know if other teams across civil service experience this, but when people leave the thing that is common to everyone leaving is like, “I don’t know why I’m leaving, this is truly amazing and I’ve never worked with nicer people in my life. I’ve learned so much from everyone.” I think even if we change, in whatever ways we change as an organisation, as long as that stays true I think GDS will always be an amazing place to work.

Angus Montgomery:
In your time in the Women’s Network, what do you think is the most rewarding or valuable thing that the network has done, or what’s the thing that you think, “So pleased that we did that?”

Rosa Fox:
There are literally so many things. I’d say as an overall general thing, and then I can go into a few more examples but, yes I think so when I talk about all the different working groups that we’ve got, so obviously the chairs of the network are just a few people, we’ve only got so much time, so the network basically relies upon the work of so many people coming together and making change. I think that in itself is something, but, yes, we have inspirational speakers that come in.

I suppose the public speaking workshops, so training and mentoring, there’s a training and mentoring group, they had a launch of a mentoring, I want to say ‘service’, but that’s not the word, mentoring scheme here at GDS, so that’s basically pairing women with mentors to help them with questions to do with career progression and advancing their careers. Yes, that’s something exciting that’s happened.

I remember the previous network did something called ‘reverse mentoring’. When I started GDS, I think it was two months after I joined I did that, and I was reverse mentoring Alex Holmes who was the COO at the time. That was really interesting because I think – so at the time when I thought of a COO, I think of this superhuman, like Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates, or someone like that, so to actually be able to regularly talk to the COO of the company you work at is really inspiring because you find out from them how they got to that point. Also, it makes you realise that maybe it’s not completely unattainable, which is really positive. Yes, things like that.

What else have we had? Things like having diverse interview panels is another thing. This is quite an interesting one, so the previous people that were in charge of the Women’s Network managed to get lots of the fixed term appointment contracts to be made permanent, because obviously if you’re going on maternity leave and your contract runs out you don’t have that job security. I think, yes, pushing things forward like that has been really good.

Angus Montgomery:
One of the things related to that, and it’s a thing that obviously we talk a lot about at GDS, but there are lots of statistics about how underrepresented women are in the tech industry, so I think there’s a PWC report that I’ve seen quite a lot that says something like, “Only 15% of people working in STEM,” so science, technology, engineering and maths, “In the UK are female,” and only 5% of people in leadership positions identify as women as well. It’s an obvious question but why, why is that, and is the tech industry particularly bad, and what are the things that make it so?

Rosa Fox:
I think it stems from a young age. Apparently women were the first computer programmers after the war. We were there, well, I say coding, writing the code out by hand and making punch cards and things like that but I think the 1980s was probably when the male domination crept in and it became more lucrative to be a programmer.

It became I suppose the kind of sci-fi hacker image started. I suppose, I don’t know, women must have just got slowly pushed out. I mean, I don’t think the numbers have improved much since the eighties, which is such a shame. I think a lot of it is how we’re conditioned from a young age. Girls, partly I think it’s girls are not really taught to take risks and things in the way that boys are, you know, “Boys will be boys, girls shouldn’t play in the mud,” that kind of thing. With programming, it does take a lot of grit and determination at first. You have to get comfortable with making mistakes because you break things all the time, things aren’t going to work, you have to sit there for hours trying to get… Like you’ve missed out a bracket and then you realise and then your code works. Things like that. I think maybe that’s part of it. Another thing is maybe it’s got this kind of geeky image, maybe it’s not considered cool to programme computers, and if you’re a girl and you’re at school maybe you’re more interested in trying to fit in with your friends. Maybe it does stem from that age.

I think also girls are just told that they can't do it. I’ve heard of – I knew someone who was studying computing A level quite a long time ago now at school, and they basically said, well, her tutor just constantly put her down. They had an anonymous test score announcement and someone had scored really highly, and they were like, “Put up your hand, who do you think this was?” It was her, so she was constantly put down but then she would get good grades. I think, yes, if you’re told that you’re not going to be good at something and then the opportunities aren’t there then… Yes.

Angus Montgomery:
Also, and I don’t think this is true just of the tech industry but I know for a fact this is true of industries beyond that, but the level of representation of women the higher up you go, the more senior you get, becomes less and less, and that figure about only 5% of people in leadership roles identify as women. Why is that an issue? On top of this structural discrimination, I suppose, against women coming into the tech industry you’ve then got this career progression issue. Why does that happen?

Liz Lutgendorff:
Yes. It’s not an individual company thing, it’s society. In organisations a lot of the tech stuff is going to be small companies, probably not with great HR policies, probably not with leave or flexible working is not a thing that exists, and so if you’re a carer, mother, if you have any of these responsibilities which disproportionately fall towards women that’s not going to be really attractive, and that’s also where you can also get lots of experience and actually go from being a small start-up to scaling up quite quickly and being in those senior roles, so if you don’t want to do that then where do you go?

Some place within GDS you have those structures and places that allow you to rise but GDS is civil service, not a lot of people know that there are tech opportunities in the civil service, still, even though there in GDS, there are loads of digital teams within many government departments who will offer you that support, and so until that changes across a lot of the tech sector I don’t know if it will improve.

The same with being in a senior role, if you’re not seen as constantly going for that then you’re not going to rise either, and putting yourself out there. If you want to go on leave to have a child or something then that’s going to hold you back. There is enough research that says that’s a big problem.

I think as well, you have to be quite vocal, you need to have, maybe not even vocal but just have that aim and relentlessly pursue it. I don’t think a lot of people are raised like that, like Rosa said. I was not raised like that. My mum was born in the Netherlands and she did a mathematics degree in the 1960s, or something, and she only could become a teacher, that was her only option at that time and so when I was raised my mum was like, “You can do whatever you want.” I changed my mind every five minutes. She was like, “Doesn’t matter, just work for it.” Typical kind of very Dutch approach to things. “Work for it and you do it.”

So I grew up with a very different perception of I can literally do everything. Which has made me probably more mouthy than I should be, but at the same time when I’m in the workforce I know that I am on average probably a lot more argumentative than most of my female colleagues, but on par with my male colleagues because I don’t really see that difference, because that’s how I was raised. Unless you’re getting that support probably from a young age you’re not going to be like that.

Even growing up through high school and university I was always like, “I’m going to do public speaking. I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that.” My parents were all supportive; they never said I couldn’t do anything. You need a lot of support from a lot of different angles to be able to get to that position and to fight for that position. Probably disproportionate to the people who are male and getting those positions because it’s kind of expected.

Rosa Fox:
I was going to say, yes, that’s so true. Girls have for years outperformed boys in every subject in school. It’s not down to the ability of women, women are just as intelligent. I want to say if not more, but… No, it’s about equality. We’re just as intelligent as each other and it’s just awful that women are treated as second class citizens when it’s just the structures have just been so skewed for so long and it just needs to change.

Angus Montgomery:
We’ve talked a lot obviously about the Women’s Network and about, I suppose, as a consequence of that what women are doing to help each other in the workplace, and you as women are doing to help other women, but what can men do to help? Well, as a starter, the Women’s Network is open to everyone, you don’t have to identify as a woman to be a member, that’s correct isn’t it?

Rosa Fox:
Yes.

Angus Montgomery:
Presumably still the majority of members are women. Do you have a lot of members who don’t identify as women?

Rosa Fox:
Yes, I’d say the majority are women. It’s International Men’s Day in a couple of weeks so we’re having a male allies event, and we’re having someone, an Oxford professor called Taha Yasseri and he’s going to be doing a talk about data science in the everyday sexism project. Then we’re going to have two GDS workers, so Kieran Housden and Matt Gregory and they are going to be talking about shared parental leave. Then we’re going to be talking about what it is to be a good male ally, kind of like a group discussion. Hopefully we’ll be able to get more people of any gender to join the network as a result of that as well. Hopefully that will be improving, but at the moment, yes, it is mostly women.

I’d say to be a good ally, firstly I think it’s recognising your biases. I think calling out bad behaviour and setting a good example. Also I think if a woman tells you that they think something is sexist or they think that something is harassment then it probably is. I find it stressful when people try and undermine someone’s opinion on something like that. I think if someone tells you this is sexist it probably is, stop doing it kind of thing.

Liz Lutgendorff:
I think on a really individual level, especially in the workplace somewhere like GDS or the civil service, or anywhere where you have a performance review at the end of the year or mid year, whatever, is to always… If a woman asks you for feedback try to give it to them. Like if you can only give one piece of feedback and one’s a guy and one’s a woman, try to give the feedback to the woman because it’s going to be harder for them to get good quality reviews.

The other things is always carefully think about what you’re saying in these things, because you get a lot of flaky, qualitative behaviour sort of thing. So like women will be more strident or they will be more argumentative, but men never get those descriptions in reviews and things like that, and so if you’re on the receiving end of that, like if you’re a manager and you are getting that feedback from someone, not even just a woman but anyone who is an underrepresented minority, to really drill down into it, like what exactly was the thing.

You get a lot of second hand, “I didn’t really like the way they constructed that email.” It’s a perfectly innocuous email, they’ve just kind of that unconscious bias has crept in. So every time there is some sort of unqualified or vague piece of feedback that is especially about behaviour, drill down into it, examine it, see if there is some bias at play.

Women and underrepresented groups always get hit with that stuff, whereas a lot of men don’t. It can really hold people back. These sorts of things really affect women quite strongly because it’s like, “I thought I was being a good team member, communicating, getting all my stakeholders involved,” all these sorts of things. It just throws people for a loop.

This is more from all my union experience but it’s so tough to get good, practical, delivery focused reviews. It’s like, “Yes, they delivered this thing, it was really well done,” all that sort of stuff, so give good, evidenced feedback for people. That will help them career wise more so than probably anything else that you could do for them. Or if they need help with something be very thorough, help them through the problem, build their confidence while you’re solving that problem, but just be there, be supportive, be un-judgemental and just help them in small ways to progress.

Angus Montgomery:
Just as a final question, the Women’s Network has been around for several years now and obviously as we’ve spoken about has done a lot of things, how would GDS be different if the Women’s Network didn’t exist?

Liz Lutgendorff:
I think we’d have less women in the workplace.

Rosa Fox:
Yes, definitely, less women. I think the culture would probably be not very nice really.

Liz Lutgendorff:
I think it would be all right but it wouldn’t be as thoughtful as it is. I think over the years it’s become far more thoughtful. Yes, definitely less women! (Laughter)

Rosa Fox:
Yes, maybe it would be more hostile. Yes, probably just wouldn’t be such a nice place to be day to day.

Angus Montgomery:
So real tangible, not only a nicer place but more women in the workplace literally because of the network?

Rosa Fox:
Definitely. I think the work we’ve produced as working for the government, our products have to work for everyone, so if we’ve got more of a range of inputs and we have better products that we produce, so…

Liz Lutgendorff:
I have no idea why the people who took shared parental leave took it because they knew of it, but I know the civil service in general has been the largest uptake of people using shared parental leave. So for those who don’t know it means that if you meet certain qualifications you can basically split the time off between your partners. So you might take four months, the mother might take four months, the mother or the other father might take four months, whatever, however you break it down.

I think because it’s so un-judgemental in terms of where we work and that you won't be disappointing your team if you leave for four months to spend that quality time with your child that more men will take it here. I know so many men who have taken shared parental leave with GDS and it’s just great, you get to have that time. I’m not a parent, I don’t know what it’s like but I imagine it must be nice not to have two weeks and have to go back and have a newborn in your house. To be able to take that time and become a parent must be really nice.

Rosa Fox:
Yes, the countries where there is a greater amount of maternity and paternity leave, they have better gender equality so, yes, I think it’s so important, and if more importance, and understanding the importance of care giving, I think we’re so taught career, career, career, but actually if we didn’t have care giving then people can't have careers, so I think if more appreciation was given towards that as well, which I think it is here at GDS more so than a lot of other places, then I think that’s good. If people are happy outside of work they’re going to do better work when they’re at work. Hopefully.

Angus Montgomery:
Just to finish off, for anyone who’s listening to this, how can they get involved with and join the Women’s Network?

Rosa Fox:
Please join. Yes, we have a Google group, so usually a lot of the communications are done through that so it’s probably best to join that. Otherwise, just message me or Nicky or Laura and, yes, there are plenty of different groups that you could be involved in. It’s like if anyone’s got an idea that they want to make happen then we’re open to try and make it happen.

Angus Montgomery:
Brilliant, well I hope lots of people do. Yes, Liz and Rosa, thank you very much for joining me.

Rosa Fox:
Thank you.

Liz Lutgendorff:
Thanks.

Angus Montgomery:
Thank you very much for joining us for that episode of the GDS podcast, I hope you enjoyed it, and if you want to listen to any more podcasts please go to wherever it is that you listen to your podcasts and subscribe to it, we’ve got lots more coming up. The next episode which we will be releasing in December will be a review of the year at the Government Digital Service, so please subscribe and listen to that one, and I hope you enjoy what we’ve done and what we’ll do in the future. Thank you very much.